Before the two Carabao Cup semifinals this week, it didn't feel as if there was a lot of tension about who would be meeting at Wembley in a few weeks. On Tuesday, Manchester City held up their side of the predictability bargain by handing United their behinds on a plate in a 3-1 win that wasn't nearly that close. On Wednesday, surely this season's thrilling surprise package Leicester would make short work of an injury-ravaged Aston Villa that is battling relegation.
Things didn't quite turn out like that. Despite Brendan Rodgers' side dominating possession (70%-30%) and out-shooting Villa (21-3), Leicester salvaged a 1-1 draw thanks to a decisive late strike by substitute Kelechi Iheanacho, eventually equalising Frederic Guilbert's first-half goal. We are obliged at this point to describe the tie as "finely-poised" ahead of the second leg (stream live on ESPN+ at 2:45 p.m. ET on Jan. 28).
Afterwards, Rodgers seemed relatively content with the way things lie, but this felt like a missed opportunity for Leicester. This was essentially their first-choice side, aside from the injured Wilfred Ndidi, but set-up with three at the back as opposed to their usual 4-1-4-1, a change that seemed curious.
"We were just a bit too passive for me in the first half," Rodgers said afterwards, admitting that he erred by not picking the terrific Hamza Choudhury. They looked much more dynamic when the midfielder came on in the second-half, and indeed it was his pressing that forced the mistake for the equaliser, bullying Douglas Luiz and feeding Iheanacho to lash high into the net.
Villa defended very solidly, but this was a team surely there for the taking for Leicester, second in the league and earning praise all season for their brilliant play, now with a superb chance of reaching a final and possibly having something to show for it all.
The Carabao Cup would be only Leicester's fifth major trophy in their history: they won the same competition in 1964, 1997 and 2000, and then some modest bauble or other in 2016. It's sometimes easy to think, after their implausible Premier League triumph four years ago, that anything beneath that miracle is an anticlimax, but this trophy remains a huge deal for Leicester, particularly when you consider how much they were drifting only a year ago.
For Rodgers, too. His reputation has been restored and polished by his work with this terrific Leicester side, but he's never won a trophy in England. Piling up stacks of them in Scotland wasn't enough, which is why he left Celtic in the final weeks of last season, eschewing the chance to win a "Treble Treble." Silverware isn't the measure of success it once was, but it's still more tangible than any other.
That sense seemed to sweep through the crowd, too. It was as if going into a cup semifinal as clear favourites made everyone recognise that the expectation is on Leicester, that they have essentially been underdogs for much of the season but now they're the ones to be shot at.
Frustration in the stands was vocalised on a few occasions, most notably about midway through the first half when Ricardo Pereira brought the ball out of defence on the right, crossed the halfway line but stopped, turned around, looked left and right and eventually played a sideways pass. Howls of irritation came from the crowd at what was a relatively minor, if not frustrating, passage of play.
"It's a semifinal," Rodgers said afterwards, when asked about that reaction. "The club hasn't been to a final in 20 years. You have to show patience, you can't panic, and I thought the players dealt with that really well. There are always times when you're going to suffer."
Of course, at 1-1 Leicester will still be confident of winning at Villa Park and making it to Wembley, but they have made it a little more difficult for themselves than it could have been. Particularly when you look at their fixtures after the second leg. In their following three games, they are scheduled to host Chelsea and Manchester City, matches which sandwich a tricky trip to Wolves.
For their part, Villa will be delighted with their performance in the circumstances: Orjan Nyland was solid in goal, deputising for the stricken Tom Heaton, and they had no specialist forward on the pitch, because they currently have no specialist forward available. Injuries meant Jack Grealish, Trezeguet and Anwar El Ghazi had to rotate as a fluid forward three, improvising as strikers. "It didn't seem to harm Manchester City last night so we thought we'd give it a go," Dean Smith joked afterwards.
This was a slightly odd game, scrappy at times and at a few points emotions almost spilled over into mild violence. Perhaps that reflected the importance both of these teams put on this tournament: for Manchester City, assuming they don't implode in their second leg, this would just be another minor bauble, a small consolation prize for the league title that Liverpool are making off with at pace.
But for these two, it will really mean something. Leicester haven't been to a final in two decades, Villa haven't won anything since a previous iteration of this cup in 1996. It will undoubtedly be more significant to whoever travels to Wembley on March 1 from this semifinal.
And so, to Villa Park in a couple of weeks. Leicester will expect to win, but if you have a choice between watching this tight and finely-poised second leg, and what will probably be a procession in Manchester, it shouldn't take too long to decide.