History repeated itself in the East Midlands as Manchester City sealed their passage into the Carabao Cup semi-finals via penalties and at the expense of Leicester for the second season running. Arijanet Muric, City’s 20-year-old Kosovan goalkeeper, was the hero, denying James Maddison and Caglar Soyuncu from the spot in a shootout that also saw Christian Fuchs and Raheem Sterling lift their kicks over the bar.
The holders had been on course to make it to the last four in normal time when Kevin De Bruyne marked his first start since the beginning of November with his first City goal in almost eight months. Yet a spirited second-half performance from Claude Puel’s side saw Marc Albrighton equalise in the 73rd minute, forcing another penalty shootout.
The first cries of “Bring back Mourinho” had not long emanated from the away end when the Manchester City supporters had cause for further celebration. De Bruyne, one of eight changes to the City side, received the ball from Nicolás Otamendi around 20 yards from goal and bamboozled Hamza Choudhury with some dexterous footwork.
What followed was like a bolt from the blue as De Bruyne, with very little backlift, whipped a low right-foot shot that flashed inside the near post. Danny Ward, the Leicester goalkeeper, probably should have taken up a better starting position, but it was a clever piece of play from De Bruyne, who took the ball early and struck it with power and precision.
The visitors were in total control in those early stages – at one point the possession count was as high as 87% in their favour – and they ought to have turned that dominance into a second goal in the 18th minute. Brahim Díaz’s deflected cross fell invitingly for Riyad Mahrez, but the winger, who was returning to Leicester for the first time since his £60m summer transfer, snatched at the chance and hooked over from six yards out.
Puel’s decision to field a weakened team was looking more and more curious by the minute as Leicester toiled. Despite his team being four points off sixth place and, realistically, not in any danger of being sucked into a relegation battle, the Frenchman made seven changes to the side that lost against Crystal Palace on Saturday. Jamie Vardy, who played 90 minutes at Selhurst Park, was not even among the substitutes and watched the game from his executive box.
With all of that in mind it was hardly surprising there were only fleeting glimpses of Leicester as an attacking force before the interval. Demarai Gray, cutting in from the left, hit a low right-foot shot that Arijanet Muric did well to turn around the post after the ball took a slight deflection. Later in the half Wilfred Ndidi slid a low cross into the area that threatened to cause problems until Eric García, a 17-year-old Spaniard who was making his debut at the heart of the City defence, did well to divert behind. Generally, though, it all felt a little underwhelming from Leicester’s perspective.
They were fortunate not to concede a second within two minutes of the restart. Mahrez’s slide-rule pass released Sergio Agüero in on goal but the Argentinian, making his first appearance since 27 November, was denied by Ward’s smart save.
Puel introduced James Maddison shortly afterwards and for a period the game became stretched. Díaz and Mahrez had opportunities to add to the lead, while at the other end Harry Maguire was unable to cleanly connect with Maddison’s floated cross.
Albrighton had no such problem when he was picked out by Ndidi with a raking crossfield pass that exposed Zinchenko, the City left-back, who was caught ball-watching as the Leicester substitute ran in behind him. After cushioning the ball with a lovely first touch, Albrighton thumped a right-foot shot from about 14 yards that flew into the far corner of the net. It was a terrific finish.
Puel, clenching his fists and screaming into the night sky, looked more animated than ever before. Yet there was more drama to come.