Jamie Vardy

Foxes Into Europa League Knockout Stages With Late Braga Draw

A last-gasp goal from substitute Jamie Vardy sealed a 3-3 draw for Leicester City against SC Braga at Estádio Municipal de Braga on Thursday, securing progress to the Round of 32 stage in the process.
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Manager Brendan Rodgers elected to make five changes to City's starting XI from last weekend's Premier League reverse at Liverpool, with Hamza Choudhury, Dennis Praet, Luke Thomas, Cengiz Ünder and Kelechi Iheanacho coming into the line-up in northern Portugal.

After a poignant minute’s silence was observed by both teams in memory of Argentina football legend Diego Maradona, matchday four of the Europa League got underway.

A period of light, tentative probing from each outfit defined the opening stages, but Al Musrati was there to nonetheless arrow a low drive beyond the outstretched Kasper Schmeichel and into the far corner after incessant early pressure from Os Arcebispos. City – who remained composed on the ball – were determined not to allow it to dampen either their spirits or their ambition, and there was parity in Portugal just five minutes later.

Iheanacho added a fourth assist to his 2020/21 tally by working a path into the area before offloading to his left, where England’s Harvey Barnes was waiting to pounce with a powerful curled effort into the roof of Matheus’ net.

An entertaining game had another early twist in store, on 19 minutes, as Paulinho weaved an astonishingly intricate route to apply the final, decisive touch onto a flowing move from Braga. Back in front and exhibiting the undeniable talents which have seen them win eight games in nine outings in all competitions, Carlos Carvalhal’s outfit were posing a significant test of City.

There was an opening for the Foxes to hit back almost immediately, though, as Iheanacho wrestled for possession on the periphery of Braga’s penalty area, before locating the unmarked Ünder. The Turkey international, however, was left frustrated by another admirable Matheus stop.

Academy graduates Barnes and Thomas could also have restored equality on the scoresheet just after the half-hour mark, although the latter was unable to keep his hopeful header down.

Braga’s one-goal lead, though, almost widened in the latter moments of the first half as a succession of magnificent saves from Schmeichel denied Ricardo Horta and then Paulinho from point-blank range to keep Leicester’s deficit down to just a solitary goal.

After a mix-up between Horta and referee Daniele Orsato on the semi-circle atop of City’s 18-yard box, Ünder tried to capitalise on the confusion, galloping forwards, twisting and turning in a fashion now familiar to the Blue Army, before forcing Matheus into action.

Harking back the years to heroic European interventions of yesteryear, another moment of magical goalkeeping was still needed from City’s No.1 as the half-time interval loomed.

It came as Wenderson Galeno skipped effortlessly into Leicester’s area, immediately placing the ball for Nuno Sequeira to tee up Paulinho, whose low effort met Schmeichel’s knee, despite the Danish Football of the Year appearing to hurl himself in the opposite direction.

The break offered an opportunity for a reassessment inside the dressing room for the Foxes, who have suffered just four defeats across the early months of an encouraging 2020/21. A product of the half-time deliberations saw Wesley Fofana and Youri Tielemans join the action, replacing Christian Fuchs and Praet, in a shift of tactical stratagem for the visitors.

While initially maybe not carving out clear-cut chances like those in the first half, Leicester certainly carried an increased threat after the restart, while exhibiting a composure in possession too.

That patience was almost rewarded on the cusp of the hour-point when Ünder unleashed a tidy curler from the angle of the penalty area, batted away firmly by Matheus. Another double switch, including the arrivals of Vardy and James Maddison, enabled the deployment of a more attacking shape, too, with Barnes and Ünder departing.

Within seconds, Vardy had the ball in the back of the net, but not before the assistant referee's flag was raised indicating an apparent over-eagerness in City’s No.9 to make his run in on goal.

Paulinho was finding Schmeichel to be a real source of frustration, too, as the Dane once again denied him a second, by flicking a smartly glanced header over the bar, on 66 minutes. The introduction of Ayoze Pérez, on the other hand, presented yet more options to Rodgers in the final third, but it was Jonny Evans who next went close for his side.

In the 76th minute, as Maddison's corner was flicked on unselfishly by Vardy, altering its trajectory towards Evans, the Northern Irishman, though, nodded his effort inches wide of the near post.

The pressure finally told, seconds later, as Maddison cut inside his man and delivered an inch-perfect low ball for Thomas - the youngest Fox on the pitch - to apply an instinctive finish, net his first senior goal, and make it 2-2 late on. 

Leicester pressed for a late winner, too, as Fofana powerfully headed another Maddison corner over the bar, but it looked as if Braga would end the night as victors when Fransergio finished low into the net on 90 minutes.

However, a typically spirited ending to the game from City saw Vardy meet Marc Albrighton's cross at the back post in the 95th minute of the game, claiming a decisive point on the road for Rodgers' men.

Major moment

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Luke Thomas

Luke Thomas makes it 2-2 after converting James Maddison's cross.

A big moment for Luke Thomas was also a crucial moment in the game itself as the Academy graduate, with the Club since he was eight-years-old, added his name to the list of players to score in European football.

The timing was notable, too, after it followed waves of Foxes pressure and offered the visitors a chance of securing a point in Portugal.

Braga retook the lead, though, through Fransergio, but Jamie Vardy's injury-time leveller resulted in a 3-3 draw.

Who impressed?

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James Justin

Gerry Taggart credited James Justin for the shift he put in against SC Braga.

Gerry Taggart told LCFC Radio: "I’m going to give it to one of the unsung heroes, and I’m going to give it to James Justin. He’s tireless with his running, he was up and down the pitch all night and he often goes under the radar. He’s had a really good, solid game tonight."

Where does it leave us?

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Jamie Vardy

The City No.9 wheels away after netting a 95th-minute equaliser for the Foxes.

After a surprising 3-0 loss for 10-man AEK Athens against Zorya Luhansk, also on Thursday, a solitary point is enough for the Foxes to seal safe passage from Group G and into the UEFA Europa League's Round of 32.

Leicester sit on 10 points, while AEK and Zorya are separated by only goal difference on three points in third and fourth respectively. 

Coming up…

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Jamie Vardy

Jamie Vardy is mobbed by his City team-mates after the Foxes guaranteed qualification to the knockout stages.

Scott Parker’s newly promoted Fulham are the visitors to King Power Stadium in the Premier League on Monday (5:30pm kick-off) before City head to Slavutych Arena to tackle Zorya Luhansk in their fourth Europa League Group G outing next Thursday (5:55pm kick-off).

All times GMT.

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