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Leicester tighten grip on top-four spot as Aston Villa miss injured Jack Grealish

Gareth Southgate seems to have a season ticket for Leicester City games home and away and who can blame him? The England manager witnessed James Maddison and Harvey Barnes score yet again as Brendan Rodgers’ team cemented their place in the Champions League spots .

With a six-point advantage over fifth-placed Chelsea, Leicester look to be in control of their own fate this season as, even with four regular squad players injured, they deservedly stretched their run to one defeat in 16 games in all competitions.

Home victories over Slavia Prague, this week, and Manchester United, next month, will see them into the latter stages of both the Europa League and the FA Cup as well but it is Leicester’s consistency in the Premier League which stands out.

The question in advance was how Aston Villa would cope without the injured Jack Grealish, missing for the first time in 49 Premier League games and 15 months. The answer appeared to be delivered inside 23 minutes: not very well at all.

By that stage, Leicester were more in control than the 2-0 scoreline indicates and Villa do not tend to be very effective when going behind, let alone when lacking their talisman. In a generally excellent season when they have already posted their best clean-sheets record for a Premier League season, Dean Smith’s team had lost eight of the 10 games in which they had conceded.

Leicester may be playing an inordinate amount of games but, even with players missing through injury, as if on a rota, they have such a head of steam that it appeared to be ‘game over’ by the time Maddison and Barnes scored.

They had only lost one of 15 games since Christmas [going into this game] and, despite fielding pretty much a full-strength team in Thursday’s Europa League goalless draw away to Sparta Prague, there was a spring in their step from the off.

They had proved their own resilience by coming back to beat Liverpool 3-1 with a late change of shape last Saturday and this time it was before kick-off that Rodgers tweaked his plans. Perhaps it was with the idea of combating Grealish that the Leicester manager used the return of right-back Timothy Castagne to push Ricardo Pereira up into right midfield, a tactic that might also have been influenced by the success West Ham enjoyed here recently in fielding right-backs either side of Grealish.

On this occasion however, with Anwar El Ghazi producing a timid display in deputising for Grealish, Pereira was able to enjoy himself going forwards as much as anyone, especially in the first half, with one powerful shot deflecting just over as Leicester took charge.

There was no surprise over the identity of Leicester’s marksmen, nor that Southgate should be here monitoring their sustained and classy progress. Maddison, receiving Barnes’ square pass, was granted all the time he needed to guide a shot from 20 yards low in off a post.

As impressive as the finish was the way Leicester had calmly played themselves out of danger from the right side of their defence, Jonny Evans and Castagne combining before feeding the ball up the line to Youri Tielemans. His driven diagonal towards Vardy may have fallen fortuitously for Barnes to tee up Maddison but the composure with which Leicester play out is testimony to their place in the top four of the division.

Within four minutes, after Pereira had curled a lofted shot that Emiliano Martínez caught spectacularly, Leicester had doubled their advantage.

The centre of Villa’s midfield was too deep and, with Ross Barkley still struggling to impose himself, there was a big gap for Leicester to enjoy. Tielemans played the ball towards Barnes and as it ricocheted out for Vardy to try his luck with a 20-yard shot, the winger was already on the move for any second chance.

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Although Martínez did well to parry, Barnes shot the rebound high into the net for his 13th goal of the season.

To Villa’s credit, they dominated the second half, triggered by Bertrand Traoré’s goal within three minute of the restart. Matt Targett received a headed return from El Ghazi as he progressed down the left wing before crossing towards John McGinn at the near post. The ball ran on for the unmarked Traoré to score from close range and spark a minor but bad-tempered exchange with Kasper Schmeichel.

Leicester tired markedly as Villa, having enjoyed a free midweek, applied concerted pressure without threatening an equaliser, Tyrone Mings heading wide in stoppage time from their best late chance. Maddison, requiring treatment for both ankle and hip injuries, limped off but he had already inflicted his own damage on Villa.

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