It is the day after the night before and Brendan Rodgers is back at Leicester City’s training ground. The sun is shining and all is well after a late turnaround in Eindhoven saw his team progress to the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League.
Rodgers is proud of the performance. “Twenty minutes to go, 1-0 down, and we were still calm,” he tells Sky Sports. “We played some great football.” But as he begins to reflect on a special night, other memories of the past 24 hours return.
“It was seeing the happiness of the players and the staff afterwards, sharing that moment with the supporters. We stayed overnight so coming back to the hotel we had all the staff there and had a meal together. That was great. Just the happiness of it all, really.”
Image: Brendan Rodgers and his Leicester City players celebrate the win over PSV in Eindhoven
Sixteen-hundred supporters were there to see it, many more will now be planning their trip to Rome in the last four. “We saw some supporters in the morning at the hotel who had stayed over. It is the joy. That is what it gives you. The supporters loved it, which is great.”
All of which makes one wonder what the mood would now be like had Leicester not mustered that comeback. Thirteen minutes remained when James Maddison levelled the tie. Two minutes of normal time were left when Ricardo Pereira won it for his team.
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Both the scorers started the game but Ayoze Perez, the player who set up the equaliser did not. Nor did Ademola Lookman, the man whose movement was instrumental in the winner. This match was won thanks to the proactive substitutions of the manager.
“I felt that we had to make the change. We were fine in the game, then we concede a sloppy goal and then we had some really good chances. I said to the guys at half-time that unfortunately when you are in these situations there are no second chances.”
Harvey Barnes was hooked, Marc Albrighton too. Lookman and Patson Daka came on. “We went with two strikers up there with Madders from the side to start with. Pats is up there with Vardy in terms of being our best presser at the top of the pitch.
“It always sets the tempo.”
Rodgers wanted to “change the dynamic from the beginning of the half and then see how that was looking before making more changes” – which he did when introducing Perez for Kelechi Iheanacho midway through the second half while still trailing.
“That was the idea. Once we had got Pats up and running in the game, it was a case of getting the extra bodies back in the game centrally.” Maddison changed position again. “They were playing with two flat midfield players so he could just come in behind that.”
It worked perfectly for the first goal. Perez feeding Maddison to crash the ball into the net. “With Ayoze’s position, I just felt that we needed someone in that half space. He had not featured a lot recently but he has trained well and I thought he was excellent.”
Lookman’s ability in tight areas was crucial for the second.
“They had scored so they were 1-0 up and sitting a little deeper so there was not so much space in behind. They were sitting back to protect the lead. I was then looking at somebody who could move a little bit freer on the inside and the outside.”
Image: Leicester's James Maddison celebrates with team-mate Ricardo Pereira after equalising
Just as he planned it, then?
“Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t,” laughs Rodgers.
“I do go into the game with a script of my own, anticipating what may happen and what may not. I will make a couple of notes and talk that through with my staff. Leading up to the game you are always thinking about it. How it may go and how it may not.
“Then it comes down to just the feel of the game.
“But you need players to be adaptable and flexible to take on what you want them to do.”
You need them to be available too.
No Premier League team has lost more minutes to injury this season than Leicester. During the bleakest times this winter, when they had won three Premier League games out of 14 and dropped out of the Europa League, not everybody wanted to hear about it.
But the impact on performance was huge.
In some instances, the effect is obvious. The remarkable Wesley Fofana only made his first Premier League appearance of the season earlier this month and has been hugely missed. Elsewhere, the consequences of the disruption have been a little more subtle.
“There is a snowball effect because other players have to be risked, you are hoping they get through it and then they don’t. There is this constant knock-on effect. Some end up playing more than you would like when fatigued and that takes away the intensity of our game.
“It is only now that we are getting players back. Having that ability to make seven changes against Crystal Palace really demonstrated that we have players coming back. Even though we still have one or two out, we have a core now and I can trust the squad.”
FREE TO WATCH: Highlights from Leicester’s win over Crystal Palace in the Premier League
Palace were beaten, but that rotation was also crucial late on in Eindhoven. “That selection allowed us to recover players for the game against PSV. In the last 15 minutes of the game, that fitness, that physicality, came through and helped give us the victory.”
Expect more rotation in the coming weeks.
“I am just conscious with a number of these players how long they have been out. Wesley, James Justin, Ricardo Pereira, Timothy Castagne – these are guys we have to be careful with. Whatever team we put out there will be an intense, aggressive team.
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“I don’t go into any game not to win. It is more about the physical requirements, especially against teams that have had a week off. We will always fight, always put out a team to get a result, but for us to do that the team has to be intense, it has to be physical.
“I have a group that I trust now and we also have to manage it because we are playing virtually every midweek and have been for a while now. You cannot ask the same players to do that. Well, you can. But the risk of injury goes up and the level goes down.”
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Rodgers makes all the right noises about the game against Newcastle on Sunday, talks of the need to “finish strongly” in the Premier League, and volunteers the statistic they have three games in hand on a Wolves team that are nine points above them.
But he is clearly aware that with only nine games remaining there are limits to what can be achieved in that competition this season. “The reality for us is that eighth is the highest we can finish now,” he says. The chance for more Leicester City glory lies elsewhere.
This is a team with a taste for it now.
“What we have tried to bring to the club is that winning mentality. It is something you build on each day. In the last three seasons we have been in three semi-finals, won an FA Cup final and a Community Shield. There is an opportunity to win more.”
There have been difficult times in between, but a season that began with a trophy celebration at Wembley, could yet end with the club’s first European honours. “Top 10 and a final would be a fantastic season considering everything we have gone through.
“Hopefully, it will be a nice ending for us.”
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