MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Leicester City 0 – 2 Blackburn Rovers

MATCH REPORT 2023/24: Leicester City 0 – 2 Blackburn Rovers

Sammie Szmodics soared Blackburn Rovers to safety on the final day of the 2023-24 Championship season, as John Eustace’s side secured their status as a second-tier club for the upcoming year, executing another perfect ‘smash and grab performance’ away to Championship champions, Leicester City, in a battle of two former Champions of England.

Coming into the 12:30pm kick-off, John Eustace was forced to shuffle his pack from last week’s goalless draw against Coventry City, as captain Dominic Hyam and winger, Dilan Markanday were both ruled out with illness, meaning that 31-goal (and counting) hotshot, Sammie Szmodics led the team out at the King Power Stadium, hoping to replicate his goalscoring heroics of last season’s 2-1 FA Cup victory in the Midlands. Ben Chrisene came in to replace the ill Hyam, with it looking like Harry Pickering tucking in to compliment his central defensive partners of Kyle McFadzean and Hayden Carter. There was a spot on the bench for youngster, Igor Tyjon, who was reaping some reward following some impressive displays in the youth ranks.

With Leicester City in jubilant mood knowing they were lifting the title regardless of the result, there was a sense of anticipation from the home crowd as they egged their side towards aiming for the 100-points mark, as they were hoping to give the Championship two successive 100-point champions, after the milestone was achieved in 2022-23.

Despite the celebratory atmosphere that had been generated inside the King Power Stadium, with multiple banners, tifos and a whole load of blue and white balloons, it was Rovers who won the coin toss with referee Andrew Kitchen, as Sammie Szmodics got the game underway aiming to once again be Rovers’ shining light.

The visitors started brightly as after just four minutes, Sam Gallagher was fed through after Tyrhys Dolan found space before Sondre Tronstad aimed to assist the striker. Although the move was well worked, Gallagher failed to apply the finish as his effort veered wide.

Leicester couldn’t cope with Rovers’ early press as moments later, the away side had nicked the ball back with Callum Brittain trying his luck twice from just inside the area, however he couldn’t replicate his goal away at Millwall, as both attempts were blocked.

Again, Rovers were knocking on the door after just six minutes as Dolan fed Szmodics who aimed to try and turn provider for once, but his ball across the face of goal didn’t have a yellow shirt near it as Leicester cleared the danger.

With just under a quarter of an hour gone, Szmodics tried to wriggle his way forwards and look to sneak the ball inside the left-hand upright, but it steered narrowly wide.

It took 25 minutes for Leicester City to manufacture their first real attempt that shocked Aynsley Pears into a save. As Abdul Fatawu twisted and turned to create a shooting angle, Pears managed to read the attempt and get his body behind the strike before the ball was cleared hastily by a yellow shirt.

Fatawu was again amongst the action, but not for the right reasons in the 36th minute as he was cautioned by Andrew Kitchen for an intentional handball.

Although Rovers were exclusively working from a counter-attacking position, neither team really looked overly threatening during the final nine minutes of the first-half, which ended on exactly 45 minutes as there was no added time allocated onto the end of the period. Whilst Fatawu’s 25th minute strike proved to be the game’s only shot on target, thus far, Rovers were left encouraged by their early foray forwards.

Enzo Maresca would have been frustrated that his side were seemingly operating in third gear on a day that was primed for celebration and goals. The Italian, who had manufactured an immediate return to the Premier League in his maiden managerial job on the British Isles would have wanted more urgency and passion from his team during the second-half as they looked to cap off a magnificent season with 100 points.

John Eustace, meanwhile, would have encouraged calm and composure at the break. The boss would have praised his side’s defensive efforts, but also reminded them that they did have a responsibility to entertain the 2,000-odd travelling fans. He would have called on his players to remain disciplined and to stick to their responsibilities, against the best team in the division.

Once the players returned to the field, it was Jamie Vardy – who was the only player left in the Foxes’ ranks to have played Rovers at the King Power on their last league visit in 2013 – who got the second period underway, with the Foxes hoping for a repeat of the reverse fixture to cap their season off on the ultimate high.

The game’s first change came in the 55th minute in a very sentimental introduction, with Marc Albrighton entering the field – and donning the captain’s armband in what would be his final Leicester City appearance – as he replaced Abdul Fatawu.

With 58 minutes gone, the yellow card was out again being brandished in the face of a player in blue as James Justin was cautioned for snapping into a challenge with Dolan, that, on another day could have seen the hosts reduced to ten men.

Another change came the way of the Foxes in the 62nd minute as Yunus Akgün took the place of Hamza Choudhury, as the home side increased their attacking firepower as they searched for the goal that would turn the Championship table inside out.

The moment that did turn the entire relegation dogfight on its head came six minutes later, as what seemed like Rovers’ only attacking outlet managed to notch another one. Sammie Szmodics did outstandingly to dispossess Jannick Vestergaard inside the Leicester half, before storming towards goal off the left-hand side and slotting the ball past the outstretched Mads Hermansen to give Rovers a shock 1-0 lead. What didn’t dampen the maverick attacker’s spirit was a yellow card shown before the restart after he had removed his shirt during the wild scenes of jubilation amongst the away supporters.

The wounded Foxes came out swinging from the restart, as four minutes after play resumed, Ricardo Pereira looked to try and pick out a blue shirt at the far-post with a deep cross that saw Harry Pickering in the right place at the right time to clear off the line and preserve Rovers’ lead.

Moments later, Stephy Mavididi tried his luck in off the left with a right-footed scorcher, but the shot lacked the required accuracy to test Aynsley Pears.

Leicester soon turned to their bench again in the 78th minute as Callum Doyle, Kasey McAteer and Kelechi Iheanacho were introduced as James Justin and Stephy Mavididi made way, alongside an emotional Jamie Vardy who departed the field slowly, to a standing ovation from everyone associated with Leicester City, with there being rumours that this outing was his final one in the royal blue of the former Premier League and FA Cup winners.

Who did test the Rovers #1, was Harry Winks with ten minutes remaining of the game as a brief scramble for the ball inside the Rovers box saw it fall to Winks on the edge of the area, who released a clean, powerful strike that forced Pears to stick out his right-hand to tip it onto the bar and behind for a corner.

In the 82nd minute, Kasey McAteer saw his cross met by the head of Ricardo Pereira, but it was straight down the throat of Pears for some easy catching practice.

Rovers soon dipped into their bench in the 83rd minute as Yasin Ayari replaced Tyrhys Dolan with seven minutes plus stoppages to go.

With 86 minutes gone, Rovers saw their first booking of the game appear, with Joe Rankin-Costello reprimanded for holding onto the ball after a foul.

As the clock hit 90 minutes, Andrew Kitchen allocated a minimum of six minutes of added time, which would have no doubt spread nerves amongst the travelling contingency, especially after Wout Faes saw his low drive in the 91st minute saved by Pears.

Those housed in the North East corner of the stadium were soon in an absolute delirious dreamland as Sammie Szmodics potentially struck the perfect parting gift by completing the most unlikely of results to all but give Rovers a 2-0 victory against the side who would be lifting the division’s title before the day was out. After some resilient and defiant defending saw a turnover of possession as Leicester pushed everyone bar Hermansen above halfway, Rankin-Costello managed to regain possession and send Szmodics away who was running from inside his own half, into Leicester’s empty half. With Mads Hermansen closer to the halfway line, than his net, as the Dane tried to engage with the Championship’s top goalscorer, Szmodics pushed the ball past the goalkeeper and celebrated with the ball still at his feet as he toyed with the retreating Faes, before smashing the ball into the back of the net, for 2-0, to not only officially confirm Rovers’ Championship status, but also ensure he would be walking away from the campaign with at least one Golden Boot – for the league – with there still being potential of one from the FA Cup.

With seconds left on the clock, John Eustace made a double change to allow his players a brief rest period and time to lap up the applause of the travelling contingency. Joe Rankin-Costello and Sammie Szmodics both made way as Jake Garrett and John Buckley entered the fray for what was probably milliseconds before the final whistle was soon blown to a rapturous roar of delight from the away team. Whilst Leicester City prepared for their own title celebrations, Rovers and their fans all shared their own scenes of celebrations, with everyone delighted and relieved in equal measures, to have not only beaten Leicester on their own patch, but to have secured their safety in the division, especially with all other results going against Rovers.

Whilst Saturday’s heroics can be celebrated as an individual performance against a side who stormed the division, this is a season that nobody in Blue and White will ever want to look back on. A campaign full of frustration, poor performances, uncertainty at every level off the pitch and on an international scale, from dugout to courtroom; this season isn’t one that Rovers fans would want to ‘save’ nor ‘submit’. Although the team and the club have saved face by remaining in the division, the hard work is by no means over with there being constant issues off the field that are limiting any type of progress on it. If the culture of the organisation isn’t changed from the top, those at the bottom and in the spotlight will be unable to succeed.

The final Championship standings leaves a lot of food for thought, with quite a bit to be decided on the final day, from automatic promotion to playoffs and relegation, as Ipswich Town secured a Premier League return, whilst Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion pipped Hull City to the playoff spots, with Birmingham City and Huddersfield Town joining Rotherham United in League One. The full Championship table can be seen at the end of the article – courtesy of BBC Sport.

On a personal note, we’d just like to thank all our readers for another great on the interwebs, even if it was not the best on the pitch. Despite all the hardship and suffering, we’d like to express gratitude to all those who have read our articles or interacted with us on social media. Here’s hoping we can piece together some sort of success and stability over the summer to try and improve in 2024-25.