Wilfred Ndidi’s freakish late goal meant Leicester saved themselves from an excruciating defeat to 10-man West Ham, but whether it will be enough to alter the course of Claude Puel’s tenure remains uncertain.
For an hour Puel was staring at a result that would have left his position under intense scrutiny but in the final minute of normal time Ndidi tried his luck from distance, the ball hit the back leg of Fabian Balbuena, and spun in an almost impossible arc into the top corner.
Puel’s reaction was understated to say the least, a slow clap of acknowledgement absent of any evident emotion. Inside he will have felt it, of course.
But Ndidi’s fortunate intervention prevented Leicester from losing a third straight game and probably affords Puel another life. He had made a big call by starting Jamie Vardy on the bench and witnessed a performance that only really got going once the former England international was introduced at the break.
Vardy did fail to capitalize on two excellent opportunities but Leicester had greater purpose with him on the pitch. West Ham were commendably resolute with a man light for so long, with Declan Rice again excelling in snuffing out danger, and could have won the game in added time if only Angelo Ogbonna had shown more composure at the end of a four-on-two break.
There were still boos from the home crowd at full-time, with Leicester’s attacking too often heading down cul-de-sacs, and Puel will know the doubts about his style have not been subdued.
This was a selection that he really needed to pay off. Leaving out your main goal threat is a gamble, more so when that player is as intrinsic to Leicester’s story as Jamie Vardy.
MATCH FACTS, PLAYER RATINGS AND MATCH ZONE
Leicester (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel 6.5; Amartey 6, Maguire 6.5, Soyuncu 6.5 (Okazaki 80′), Chilwell 7.5; Ndidi 7, Iborra 6; Ghezzal 5 (Vardy 46′ 6.5), Maddison 7, Albrighton 8; Iheanacho 6.5 (Gray 61′ 6.5).
Subs not used: Evans, Ward, Ricardo Pereira, Mendy.
Goalscorers: Ndidi (89)
Manager: Claude Puel 6
West Ham (4-1-4-1): Fabianski 7; Zabaleta 7, Balbuena 7, Diop 7, Masuaku 6.5; Rice 7.5, Noble 5; Diangana 6 (Cresswell 75′, Anderson 6 (Ogbonna 81′), Snodgrass 7; Hernandez 5 (Antonio 61′ 6.5).
Subs not used: Adrian, Fredericks, Powell, Coventry.
Goalscorers: Balbuena (30)
Sent off: Noble (38)
Manager: Manuel Pellegrini 7
Referee: Michael Oliver 8.
West Ham broke the deadlock courtesy of a training ground routine with Fabian Balbuena on hand to finish off the set-piece move.
It is true Vardy had suffered from a stomach illness during the week – having been forced off before the end of last Monday’s loss to Arsenal – but he declared himself ‘back to full strength’ on the eve of the game.
So Puel’s decision to start Vardy on the bench was a significant cause of friction for the 31-year-old, whose wife Becky had given a flavour of her feelings by liking tweets critical of the Leicester manager’s tactics.
Puel also dropped Jonny Evans from the starting line-up, giving Caglar Soyuncu his debut. It was a curious choice given Evans has performed reasonably well and Puel has admitted his replacement, the 22-year-old Turkish international signed for £19million, had been taking time to adequately grasp English.
Pellegrini was wrestling with other issues, namely putting eleven fit players on the pitch. West Ham have nine first-team members out injured, so Grady Diangana, the 20-year-old winger, was handed his first Premier League start.
But Leicester’s energy has a way of evaporating under Puel and the side began to run out of ideas and impetus. West Ham built into the contest, with Felipe Anderson snapping a shot Kasper Schmeichel needed to save, and Robert Snodgrass hooking a finish wide after some neat dribbling.
Then on half an hour West Ham took the lead. It was dreadful defending from Leicester. Anderson lifted a free-kick deep into the area and Declan Rice was free to head back after Wilfred Ndidi missed his attempted clearance.
Balbuena had so much space he was afforded the luxury of not one, but two shots at goal unchallenged. His first was a header that hit the post and his second a tap-in after Schmeichel had failed to collect the rebound.
Puel stood stock still, hands clasped behind his back as the disgruntled murmurs in the King Power Stadium grew pointed.
But eight minutes later he and Leicester were given a major, fortuitous boost. Trying to retrieve a loose ball, Noble lost his composure and dived into a tackle on Ndidi that caught the Nigerian on his shin, studs up. Michael Oliver had no hesitation in showing the red and Noble’s complaints did not hold merit.
From the free-kick James Maddison sent the ball into West Ham’s box and found Vicente Iborra unmarked eight yards out. His header was firm but too close to Fabianski and it was a golden chance wasted.
As soon as Oliver blew his whistle for the interval Vardy was out warming up and his entrance for the second half was greeted with welcome cheers from fans who recognise his influence.
Vardy’s introduction did lift Leicester’s tempo. The hosts had had two penalty appeals turned down, correctly, by the time Marc Albrighton connected flush on the volley to Ben Chilwell’s cross in the 63rd minute. Fabianski reacted well to push the ball out then held Albrighton’s second effort.
Seconds later Vardy spurned a chance he should have scored. Albrighton was again involved, delivering an excellent cross to meet Vardy’s dart into the six-yard box but the striker’s near-post header went just over.
Harry Maguire went even closer shortly afterwards, hitting the bar with his header from Maddison’s corner.
Puel replaced Soyuncu with Shinji Okazaki and pressed the offensive. But West Ham had the better chances until Ndidi equalised. Ogbonna failed to connect properly to Snodgrass’s free-kick and Michail Antonio drew a save from Schmeichel.