Feisty James Maddison showed Leicester what they have been missing
Just as significant as Leicester City progressing into the last 16 of the FA Cup for the fifth time in seven seasons was the return of their maverick talisman James Maddison.
As Brendan Rodgers, the Leicester manager noted afterwards, "anything can happen when he’s on the pitch". The problem for Leicester, enduring their second slump of a topsy-turvy season, was that very little had been happening when Maddison had not been on the pitch.
Twenty-five minutes in, having scored the goal which set Leicester on their way to victory at West Ham United on November 12, Maddison hobbled off with a knee injury. Despite training with England in Qatar he did not appear at the World Cup and on his return, his knee specialist refused to give the green light for club training until a fortnight ago.
In the five Premier League games since West Ham, Leicester have taken just one point and scored three goals. Once training, Maddison’s recovery was rapid. The plan, which would have applied to a league game, was to give Maddison an hour in combat.
What transpired was peak Maddison, from the moment he exchanged cheery banter with Walsall fans in the warm-up to his departure after 63 minutes, roundly jeered by three sides of the sold-out stadium and wildly applauded by the other.
Inevitably, this was not quite the real James Maddison, but his feistiness was undimmed, so when Robbie Willmott clattered into him in the 17th minute, Maddison sprang to his feet to suggest in the strongest possible terms, arms flailing windmill-style, that a mere free kick was somewhat short of condign punishment. Referee Gavin Ward was not for turning, nor was he for being dictated to. Willmott escaped further sanction. Maddison was shown a yellow card. How the home support chuckled.
Playing just in front of the midfield trio, he linked up effectively with Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall, who suffered more than most from Maddison’s absence. “It’s fantastic he’s back,” said Dewsbury-Hall. “I am so happy. Everybody knows he’s a top player. I love playing with him. His return is a massive bonus for us.”
There was one moment of wonder when Maddison collected the ball in his own half and embarked upon a dazzling run. A selection of fiercely committed Walsall players offered a selection of fiercely committed challenges, but Maddison skipped over them and waltzed forwards. Then he spotted Harvey Barnes overlapping, only to overhit his crossfield pass to again delight Walsall’s fans. They were more giddy still when, from the edge of the area, Maddison’s only shot of the afternoon troubled Row Z rather than Walsall’s excellent goalkeeper Owen Evans.
What now? Clearly Maddison needs more game time, but both his return and new signing Victor Kristiansen impressive from the bench bode well. Meanwhile, the impending arrival of Brazilian winger Tete and the recruitment team sifting through midfielder and striking options, much-needed reinforcements are charging over the hill. Salvation beckons.