How Leicester City, mired in sluggish Premier League form, reeling from the disappointment of their Europa League exit at Napoli on Thursday and with their squad buffeted by Covid positives and general illness, needed something to lift them. James Maddison provided it.
The playmaker had already won the 37th-minute penalty from which Youri Tielemans gave them the lead – a little dubiously, it should be said – when he made a pre-assist of such quality that it not only shredded Newcastle’s backline but broke their collective spirit.
Addressing a short pass from Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall in the inside-left channel, midway up the Newcastle half, Maddison had seen the run of Harvey Barnes and made the calculations. With the outside of his right boot he sculpted a first-time ball that set his teammate racing clear. Barnes squared to Patson Daka, who was in for the rested Jamie Vardy, and he did the rest.
Maddison was not finished, not by a long shot. He took a low cross from Daka after Luke Thomas had won the ball high up before ushering in Tielemans for 3-0 and there was still time to get himself on the scoresheet.
The Newcastle support refused to be cowed into silence but their team was broken and it was too easy for Leicester. The substitute Marc Albrighton won the ball off Joelinton and found Maddison, who swapped passes with Daka, ran around Fabian Schär and shot into the far corner.
For Brendan Rodgers there was the bonus of a first clean sheet in the league since the opening weekend of the season and for him and his team, it felt like a trick of the mind that they had laboured for much of the first half. Maddison would depart to a standing ovation when he was substituted on 88 minutes, plus a bear hug from Rodgers.
Newcastle won their first game of the league season last weekend – at home against Burnley – and this had felt like an opportunity for them, before matches against Liverpool and the Manchester clubs. They failed to take it, flattering to deceive up front despite the best efforts of Allan Saint-Maximin – their final decisions repeatedly poor – before capitulating in alarming fashion.
The scoreline was harsh on Newcastle, given their efforts in the first half and, if the turning point was easy to locate, it was a source of bitter frustration for their manager, Eddie Howe.
The penalty followed a clumsy attempt by Newcastle to play out from the back. Jonjo Shelvey – put into trouble by Jamaal Lascelles – took a heavy touch, with Tielemans pressing and nicking the ball towards Maddison, who was too quick for Lascelles. It felt soft in real time, Lascelles lunging in but quickly checking out of the challenge; Maddison looking for the contact, feeling it and going down. The impression was only confirmed by the replays.
If the referee, Peter Bankes, had not made the decision, it seemed unlikely that VAR would have intervened. On the other hand, it was one of those that was never going to be overruled by the technology, even though Howe argued Bankes ought to have consulted the pitchside monitor. Tielemans’ conversion was high and unstoppable.
“When you see the penalty in detail [on replays], you see the player is going over before contact is made,” Howe said. “It’s not a penalty.”
Before kick-off, only three clubs had conceded more league goals than Leicester this season, one of them being Newcastle, and it had felt like being a battle of the dodgy defences. Initially, it was Newcastle who asked the questions and it was certainly not a part of Rodgers’ script to lose Jonny Evans to a hamstring injury in the sixth minute. The manager was forced to drop the defensive midfielder, Wilfred Ndidi, back as a makeshift centre-half. The prognosis on Evans was “not good,” according to Rodgers.
Leicester had been nervous at the outset, giving the ball away cheaply and inviting Newcastle to settle. There were flickers from the visitors in the opening quarter although nothing clear-cut, and it was possible to wonder whether they would show the needed cutting edge.
Leicester measured their first-half threat in set pieces. Maddison curled a free-kick just over while Ndidi’s header from another Maddison free-kick extended Martin Dubravka. The effort did look to be going just past the far post.
Newcastle’s best bet was Saint-Maximin, who has that priceless ability to make things happen in tight spaces. But it was Maddison who made the difference, his pass that sparked the clinching second goal a thing of wonder. Daka’s somersaulting celebration was as extravagant as the tap-in was simple.
Newcastle’s only second-half moment came when Timothy Castagne erred with a back pass, failing to spot that Kasper Schmeichel was away from his goal. Schmeichel tore back to scrape off his line and it was the prompt for Leicester to turn the screw.