Leicester took a while to get going but they eventually made a commanding start to their first European expedition since 2016-17, dispatching their Ukrainian visitors thanks to goals from James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Kelechi Iheanacho. Although they could have scored plenty more, this was a positive beginning to a Europa League group phase during which they will also face AEK Athens and Braga.
Several of the home players stood out, especially Barnes and Wesley Fofana, but it was a particularly sweet contest for Maddison. This was only his second start since undergoing a hip operation in July and then suffering calf trouble. There was a joy to his performance that uplifted his team. “When you have an injury, it kinds of brings back the magic,” he said afterwards. “It brings back your love for the game. To be back out starting, pain-free and in Europe for the first time, and to get a goal as well, makes it a special feeling.”
Maddison was one of only two alterations – the other being Christian Fuchs – that Brendan Rodgers made to the lineup that started Leicester’s last Premier League outing. Perhaps Shakhtar Donetsk’s sensational victory at Real Madrid in the Champions League on Wednesday had served as a warning against underestimating Ukrainian visitors. And Zorya Luhansk, competing in this tournament for the seventh successive season, made a perky start as they tried to boost their attempt to progress beyond the group stages for the first time.
Speaking of firsts, no woman had ever taken charge of a match in England featuring a Premier League team before Stéphanie Frappart oversaw this one. Frappart did referee the 2019 Super Cup final between Liverpool and Chelsea in Istanbul, when she created history by becoming the first woman to handle a major men’s European final. Premier League players may be unaccustomed to seeing a woman in the middle but this was a run-of-the-mill assignment for Frappart, who has been refereeing top-flight matches in France since last year, when she also officiated the Women’s World Cup final.
Youri Tielemans did not escape Frappart’s attention in the 10th minute, when he was deservedly booked for sabotaging a counterattack by Zorya. That encapsulated a frustrating start for the hosts, who struggled to find a way through the visiting defence. Indeed, Rodgers’s side spent an uncomfortable amount of time chasing the ball as Zorya proved to be nimble passers.
Kasper Schmeichel had to rescue his team in the 22nd minute when Zorya opened them up, the goalkeeper making a fine save to deny Vladyslav Kabaev.
Just before the half-hour mark Leicester cut through with their first really sharp attack. Barnes’ shot from the left of the box bounced off the far post and Iheanacho prevented the goalkeeper from retrieving the rebound before feeding the ball to Maddison to convert from close range.
Leicester took control after that, although Schmeichel nearly let Zorya back into the game with a sloppy pass just before the break. The goalkeeper was relieved to see Dmytro Ivanisenya’s lob drop over the bar.
Leicester soon settled themselves with a brilliant goal. Iheanacho rolled a classy backheeled pass into the path of Barnes, who scampered into the penalty area and finished delightfully.
Leicester never looked like dropping points after that. Barnes and Maddison began to thrive, although Maddison did not relish the crude tackling he seemed to attract. Iheanacho and Timothy Castagne joined in the creative play regularly and Fofana, who had another accomplished game at centre-back, glanced a header inches wide after venturing forward for a corner.
Rodgers decided to take Maddison out of harm’s way just after the hour, replacing him with Cengiz Under. Moments later Iheanacho made it 3-0, profiting from a defensive error before spinning past his marker and firing into the net from 16 yards.
With Barnes irrepressible, Leicester threatened to inflict further damage but the visitors did just enough to keep the scoreline respectable.