How Shinji Okazaki’s second-half introduction proved the catalyst for Leicester’s win over Liverpool
Whilst both sides rang the changes for their third-round Carabao Cup tie on Tuesday night with Saturday’s league fixture in mind, Leicester might not have expected such a one-sided first-half.
Liverpool were completely dominant in every aspect, pinning the hosts firmly in their own third of the pitch and creating chance after chance as the Foxes’ defence were subjected to a constant siege.
Somehow Craig Shakespeare’s side made it through to the break unscathed – a combination of wasteful finishing and stubborn defending keeping Liverpool out – but, once the visitors continued where they left off in the first five minutes after the break it was clear that a change was needed.
And whilst it may have been an enforced change, with Foxes striker Leonardo Ulloa having to be withdrawn on 53 minutes due to a head injury, it gave Shinji Okazaki the chance to influence proceedings.
The 31-year-old suddenly injected a bit of pace and energy into a lacklustre Leicester display, giving them an option when clearing the ball out of defence and, more importantly, a focal point to aim for in attack.
His arrival sparked the hosts into life, with Demarai Gray – who had been Leicester’s stand-out performer in attack until then – venturing further forward and looking to exploit right-back Jon Flanagan more.
It was little surprise then that Okazaki was involved in the opener, getting himself into the right areas in and around the edge of the penalty area to capitalise on Vicente Iborra’s headed knock-down and, via a deflection, slot the ball into the corner and past Danny Ward to give Leicester a shock lead.
And it was perhaps even less surprising when he was involved in the build-up again for Islam Slimani’s stunning game-clincher, using his raw strength to hold off Ragnar Klavan and flick the ball forward.
But it wasn’t just his involvement in the goals that impressed, with his typically tenacious attitude around the midfield adding some bite to Leicester’s play and forcing Liverpool into making mistakes, hustling the inexperienced Mark Grujic into conceding possession too easily and putting the Foxes back on the front foot.
And Leicester boss Craig Shakespeare was quick to praise Okazaki – and rightly so – in a post-match interview with the Leicester Mercury, saying:
“I am obviously delighted. It is all about the result in football. Performances can have a massive bearing on the result. If they [Okazaki] are left out I want a response.
“He has got his head down and trained impeccably but that is the character of the man. He won’t change. He has always been like that.
“He has walked away with the man of the match trophy and he didn’t even play half the game. That just shows you the level of his contribution and impact he was able to make from the bench.”
It’s arguable that it wasn’t a deserved victory by the hosts on Tuesday, considering that Liverpool could have been out of sight by half-time, but that’s the price you pay when you don’t take chances.
Perhaps more importantly though it gives Leicester a huge confidence boost ahead of Saturday’s déjà vu clash when a full-strength Liverpool return to town, giving them a psychological edge over the opposition.