Carabao Cup semifinals: Will Villa stop Leicester?
The Carabao Cup semifinals are here, and you can stream them live on ESPN+ over the next few days. Man United lost 3-1 to Man City (stream the replay on ESPN+ in the U.S.) but what will the other first leg reveal? Nick Ames is your guide.
LEICESTER vs. ASTON VILLA
The state of play
A look at the league table suggests this a mismatch. Villa are scrambling to stay away from the relegation zone, while Leicester have mounted the closest approximation to competition for runaway leaders Liverpool, against all odds.
Brendan Rodgers' side may have stuttered slightly around Christmas -- although everything is relative given their tremendous streak of form in the autumn, which included a deserved win at Villa Park -- but they should be at full tilt for this semifinal and know that a Carabao Cup triumph would underline the rapid progress they have made over the past 12 months.
Villa's position is more uncertain, with long-term injuries to Wesley and Tom Heaton harming their cause and the absence of John McGinn, their best player over the season so far, a major blow. They are slightly fortunate to be here given that they were faced with a scratch Liverpool side owing to the Merseysiders' Club World Cup priorities in the last eight. But Dean Smith made a number of changes for the weekend's FA Cup third round defeat to Fulham and they will be well rested.
A clash between Midlands rivals, with the stakes this high, means all bets may be off.
The key men
This feels like a clash of the Premier League's two most vaunted young playmakers. James Maddison and Jack Grealish have both had tremendous seasons and it would take a bid north of £50m to prise either away. Both have been linked strongly with moves to Manchester United, in particular. But who can wield the most influence here?
Maddison slots beautifully into what, for all their flair and invention, is a tightly wound Leicester unit and will be expected to pull the strings on Wednesday. A little more heavy lifting may be required of Grealish, particularly given Villa's injury woes, but this is the kind of high-octane occasion he thrives on.
Villa will also need to hope those around him are up to the job. Can Jonathan Kodjia, who put Liverpool's youngsters to the sword last month, step up and prove he can answer their striking problems against top opponents? And can Tyrone Mings, one of the revelations of this top-flight season, stop Jamie Vardy in his tracks?
The big question
Can Villa get themselves a foothold in the tie? They have not kept a clean sheet away from home all season and, against a side that has only failed to score three times 26 games, will need to find a way of keeping things tight. With that December blip seemingly behind them, Leicester will sense an opportunity to make the return game at Villa Park feel relatively comfortable.
Prediction: Leicester 2-0 Aston Villa
Leicester will give themselves a solid advantage in a well-contested, competitive game to edge nearer to a first trophy under Rodgers.