COMMENT By Solace Chukwu Follow on Twitter
For all that the constant comparisons between N’Golo Kante and Wilfred Ndidi are lazy and presumptuous, there is one trait they both share that the numbers can only cover in a limited way. At every turn, as the level goes higher, they blend right in.
The scene is the quarter final first leg of the Uefa Champions League, and the opposition is Atletico Madrid at the Vicente Calderon, that noisome bear pit over which Diego Simeone presides. Leicester City are already in dizzyingly unfamiliar territory, and it tells: as their ears congest and their balance goes, it is only the gangly Ndidi who seems sure of foot.
The irony though is that, for all that the Foxes were outfoxed, they are still very much in the tie. Antoine Griezmann’s penalty gives Atletico a slim advantage to take to the King Power next week, but it could have been so much worse were it not for Leicester’s prize greyhound.
Only Danny Drinkwater completed more passes, and that only marginally – 34 to Ndidi’s 33. The Nigeria international however played fewer passes, and more impressively did a better job of getting a beleaguered Leicester up the pitch with accurate long balls: two of three found their target, while his midfield partner hit the mark once in five attempts.
Leicester’s youngest player was also their best on the night: hardly ideal for a team with designs on progression.
Under Craig Shakespeare, they have returned to the direct attacking into the channels that served them so well in their title-winning season. Yet, it was always going to be a struggle to face this Atletico side: no team left in the Champions League is as good at denying that space, or at preventing one-on-ones against the centre-back in open ground.
Jamie Vardy, a man reborn since Claudio Ranieri’s departure, was back to his ineffectual worst – he completed one pass the entire evening, and indeed only touched the ball 11 times in the Spanish capital. Los Colchoneros are an old hand at this business of closing off space, and to say they were Leicester before even Leicester were flatters the Foxes a little, but you get the point.
They defend compactly and narrowly, denying access through the middle of the pitch and forcing opponents wide, before shutting them down.
It was a bit like looking in a mirror on half-way, only the team in blue looked the pale imitation, the blurred reflection.
It is not a stretch though to state that Ndidi looked the only player who could have stepped through the glass, emerged on the red and white side of the divide and not immediately appeared out of place. Twelve ball recoveries all across his defensive half was testament to his mobility and all-action approach, even as the rest of the Leicester side seemed to freeze in the floodlit Calderon.
Is Ndidi the reason the reigning English champions are still in this? Perhaps. That and some wayward finishing (looking at you, Fernando Torres).
However, unlike in the previous round against Sevilla when they were dominated mightily but managed an away goal, the Foxes do not appear to have their tails up.
Robert Huth is suspended for the home leg, and Yohane Benalouane looked less than sturdy anyway. If captain Wes Morgan does not return for the home leg, it may be that Leicester are forced to turn to an all-African centre-back pairing in Benalouane and Daniel Amartey.
If so, the portents are grim.
Not to be uncharitable, but Amartey has looked pretty much the opposite of Ndidi since his summer arrival: not so much bad outright as just unfit for purpose, somehow worse because he is not entirely awful enough to discard.
His outings with Leicester have also mostly come in defensive midfield, and his inability to convince there led directly to the acquisition of Ndidi from Genk. Being pressed into service at centre-back (albeit he plays there for Ghana, to mixed reviews) in the quarter final of the Champions League, against an Atletico side that has contested two of the last three finals, would be quite the test.
Atletico will be licking their lips then, and for all that miracles happen, Leicester may find this a bridge too far, even at home.
The fairytale appears all but over, and while the ending may not be a happy one, there is some relief in the East Midlands: the shoe fits Ndidi, and however it pans out next week, you can be sure the 20-year-old will not be cowed by the occasion.