The first goalless draw of this extraordinary season was looming like an unwelcome guest when Ross Barkley seized his moment. Picking up the ball midway inside the Leicester half in stoppage time, Aston Villa’s on-loan Chelsea midfielder strode forward and fired a drive from over 20 yards into the bottom corner. And with that, Villa had won their opening four matches of a campaign for the first time since 1930 and climbed to second place in the Premier League.
In what must have been one of the easiest team selections of his managerial career, Dean Smith opted to start with the same side that inflicted that vibrant, outrageous 7-2 defeat on Liverpool two weeks ago. Brendan Rodgers had no such luxury: the Leicester manager might have believed changes were necessary after losing 3-0 at home to West Ham in their last outing, but he would not have willingly forgone the services of Jamie Vardy. However, calf trouble deprived the hosts of their top scorer, which was good news for Villa, whom Vardy has a particular habit of persecuting, having scored four goals in two league meetings against them last season.
Vardy was not Leicester’s only absentee, with the centre-back Caglar Soyuncu also ruled out, in addition to Wilfred Ndidi and Ricardo Pereira. Rather than turn to the veteran Wes Morgan, Rodgers decided the time was right to give a Premier League debut to Wesley Fofana, the 19-year-old centre-back bought from Saint-Étienne this month for more than £30m. Even an exceptional teenager might have gulped at being asked to start his career in England by subduing an attack that had just fired seven goals past the champions. It would be the job of the experienced Jonny Evans to help ensure Villa did not make this too much of a culture shock for the newcomer.
Fofana’s initiation began in earnest in the third minute when he had to peel himself off the ground after catching a mouthful of Ollie Watkins’ right arm in an aerial challenge. But apart from that the defender looked comfortable as Leicester allowed Villa to have the ball in innocuous areas before trying to pinch if off them and spring forward.
Counterattacking without the speed of Vardy is even more tricky but Leicester showed cleverness. Kelechi Iheanacho served as a crafty front pivot around which Dennis Praet and Harvey Barnes zigzagged dangerously.
Emi Martínez was the first goalkeeper to be forced into meaningful action, although Ayoze Pérez’s gentle shot from 25 yards was never likely to inconvenience him much. But Martínez was certainly bothered in the 21st minute when Leicester raced forward on the break. Iheanacho played a smart pass through to Timothy Castagne, whose powerful shot from a tight angle was beaten away by Martínez. The goalkeeper had to intervene again two minutes later to stop a long-range drive by Iheanacho.
The visitors did not threaten until the 26th minute, when John McGinn ran on to a pass by Jack Grealish and rasped a shot wide from 10 yards under pressure from James Justin. Villa’s attackers seldom got time or space on the ball.
Matty Cash rescued Villa with a fine tackle in the box on Castagne just after the half-hour but embarrassed himself, and earned a booking, a few minutes later by dragging down Barnes in desperation after misjudging a bouncing ball on the wing.
Villa improved after the break and began to stretch Leicester. Grealish’s patience neared breaking point as he was repeatedly fouled but, as ever, he never quit trying to incite a breakthrough with his skill. A nicely delivered corner in the 55th minute invited Ezri Konsa to open the scoring but the defender’s header flew just wide.
Leicester’s visits into opposing territory were growing rare but Youri Tielemans almost made one count on the hour with a shot from 20 yards. Martínez saved it despite a troublesome deflection off Tyrone Mings. Two minutes later Tielemans excelled at the other end, rushing back to defuse a promising Villa counteratttack. Still, Leicester needed more inspiration. Rodgers turned to James Maddison.
But his ingenuity remained dormant, like almost everyone else’s. In search of something different, Rodgers threw on Islam Slimani, who had had loan spells at Newcastle, Fenerbahce and Monaco since his last appearance for Leicester more than two years ago. He was hoping for a sensation. But not the one provided by Barkley.