After the club came out earlier in the week to give Claudio Ranieri their full backing, it was intriguing to see how the Leicester City players would respond.
They didn’t disappoint, despite the mass change in personnel deployed by ‘The Tinkerman’.
Some Foxes fans seemed sceptical about the side that would start the game, which seemed somewhat unsurprising given their desperately poor run of late. Ranieri said in his programme notes that the players, “have big hearts, but they need our support”, and the fans must be applauded for their efforts in getting behind the team right from the off.
Perhaps even more prominently, it was vital for the fans to get behind the boss. And get behind him they did. It was actually a moving moment when the ground rose to their feet after five minutes, singing aloud their Italian manager’s name.
The chants filled the ground and fittingly Ranieri acknowledged the Leicester faithful, applauding them back. If he didn’t know it already, the fans are with him.
After a lethargic first-half from both sides, the small minority of fans calling for Ranieri’s head became more vocal, but they were soon drowned out as Andy King headed home from close-range after a brilliant cross from Marc Albrighton.
However, rather than spur The Foxes on, the goal slowed Leicester’s tempo and Derby County sensed an opportunity. They were a tad fortunate in their equaliser, which came from a deflected Abdoul Camara free-kick.
The action stagnated slightly, with Ahmed Musa struggling again through the middle, Leicester lacked any real cutting edge. The same could be said for Derby, who threw on former Fox, David Nugent, in the hope of nicking a late winner.
Funnily enough, the best chance to snatch a winner fell to Musa, who got a ball over the top first, but was controversially denied an open goal to tap home into by what looked like a handball by the Derby ‘keeper, Jonathan Mitchell, outside his box.
Had referee Mike Jones seen it, Mitchell would’ve surely seen red and Derby would have been forced to play an outfielder in goal. Yet, into extra-time they went.
‘The Tinkerman’, made only one change in the entire 90 minutes, before opting to throw on Islam Slimani and Wilfred Ndidi to replace the ineffective Musa and tiring Nampalys Mendy.
It proved to be a stroke of genius as a resurgent Ndidi weaved through the Derby midfield before firing past Mitchell from outside the box. The ground was alive with noise and The Foxes smelt blood.
The fight had gone out of Derby, who looked to have run out of steam deep into extra-time, and a successful evening was capped off by Man of the Match, Demarai Gray, when he weaved past two Derby defenders and fired into the top corner of the net.
Gray had been a standout player on the night and deserved his goal and probably deserves a start on Sunday away at Swansea City.
Whilst Leicester march into the next round with a game away at Millwall, its back to the drawing board for Steve McClaren and Derby, where they hope they will be able to continue to push for a play-off spot in the Championship.
For Leicester, it’s a much-needed win, and could be the catalyst to turn their season around. We would suspect that tonight’s stars in Gray and Ndidi will also have big roles to play in the Premier League champions’ fight for survival.
Leicester City: Zieler (6), Amartey (7), Wasilewski (6), Benalouane (6), Chilwell (7), Albrighton (6), King (7), Mendy (6), Kaputska (6), Gray (8), Musa (6).
Subs: Mahrez (6), Slimani (6), Ndidi (7).
Derby County: Mitchell (6), Christie (6), Keogh (5), Shackell (6), Lowe (6), Butterfield (6), de Sart (6), Johnson (6), Camara (6), Blackman (5), Anya (6).
Subs: Vydra (6), Russell (6), Nugent (6).
Man of the Match: Demarai Gray