Sport: Brendan Rodgers is judging James Maddison differently as Leicester City heist remains possible

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It is a sign of the progress Leicester City have made over the past couple of months that they have visited a team challenging for the top four and are disappointed not to have claimed three points.

James Maddison with Brendan Rodgers after Leicester City's 1-1 draw with Manchester United © Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images James Maddison with Brendan Rodgers after Leicester City's 1-1 draw with Manchester United

It is a further indication of their improvement that supporters waking up on Sunday morning were frustrated not with a tactical decision nor individual error on City’s part, but rather the refereeing.

In truth, Kelechi Iheanacho did foul Raphael Varane in the build-up to James Maddison’s disallowed goal, sweeping the Frenchman’s leg away as he tried to get free of the tangle. Brendan Rodgers pointed out that Harry Maguire and Alex Telles had opportunities to make an intervention thereafter, but that does not change the fact that Iheanacho committed an infringement to get past the first man.

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The more debatable decision – one bizarrely absent from the Match of the Day highlights – was the possible red card for Scott McTominay. Rodgers compared it to Ayoze Perez’s sending off at West Ham last August, when he took a heavy touch before bundling into a 50-50, the Spaniard’s studs connecting with the leg of countryman Pablo Fornals.

But really, they are not comparable. Perez was not trying to challenge Fornals, but instead trying to regain his footing and shield the ball, accidentally planting his foot where the West Ham midfielder’s leg was. At Old Trafford, McTominay very clearly dived into a tackle with excessive force and his studs showing.

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He escaped the most severe punishment because of the ‘clear and obvious error’ ruling. If referee Andre Marriner had shown a red card to start with, the VAR official would not have asked him to consider a yellow.

Playing against 10 men for 40 minutes could have allowed City to control the second half even more than they did and fashion even more chances. Rather than be frustrated at the decision, City must consider the positives: they are ruing the decisions and not their own display.

City's best defence at its best will be decisive in success

If the four defenders lining up for City at Man United are considered to be Rodgers’ preferred quartet – it can be debated that Ricardo Pereira in full flow would get in ahead of James Justin or Timothy Castagne – then it was the first time in more than 14 months that the club’s best defence had started together. That’s a long wait.

A centre-back duo of Jonny Evans and Wesley Fofana provides the “perfect balance”, Rodgers had said in the build-up to the game, with the former possessing the organisational and leadership skills, and the latter all of the desired physical attributes.

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But their perfection was not really tested. In the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo and Edinson Cavani, Ralf Rangnick chose not to play with a striker. It allowed City’s centre-back partnership to be eased back in, rather than thrown in the deep end.

In the 60 minutes they played together, United had just six shots. It’s not a foolproof method of judging a defensive performance, but generally, if you’re stopping the opposition from getting the ball into areas they think they can score from, that’s a good job done. For comparison, City have conceded 16 shots a game on average this season.

While that statistic is promising, there was still an obvious rustiness. In giving the ball away for Bruno Fernandes’ first-half chance and then not getting tight enough to him for the goal, it felt like Fofana was making mistakes he does not make at peak fitness.

Tougher tests will follow, starting with Thursday night against PSV Eindhoven, and it feels like the speed at which City’s best defence get to their best will define the next two months after the success the club can enjoy.

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Why Rodgers is judging Maddison differently

Fitting James Maddison into the team has not been an easy task for Rodgers over recent months. That slot on the right wing, which is not where he does his best work, feels like the only one open for him at the moment.

But still he produced, in the way he and City fans would hope he does, and also the way Rodgers wants him to.

As an attacking player, naturally Maddison will be judged on his effectiveness in forward positions, and once again he delivered. Literally. The ball in for Iheanacho’s goal could not have been more inviting, and was far from easy to make on his weaker foot and with plenty of defenders between him and the striker. His cross from the other side for Harvey Barnes’ first-half chance was another corker.

There was the disallowed goal too, and while it won’t be added to his tally, it was another indication that he can pick up the right spots in the box to score, and is not all about finding the net from range.

But Rodgers won’t apply so much focus to those moments. Maddison’s selection is not dependent on producing goals and assists. If it was, he could have a months-long dry spell and still be guaranteed a spot in the 11 given his record over the past few months.

What Rodgers wants is Maddison to do the dirty work. Pressing while playing as a number 10 is much easier in that the opposition’s defensive midfielder barely ventures over the halfway line, meaning less tracking back. As a winger, Maddison has to keep chasing a full-back up and down.

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Marc Albrighton is the best at that in the squad, which is why he has been playing recently. But despite the title-winner's return to fitness, Maddison kept his place, and he did indeed put a shift in, against both Luke Shaw and Telles.

The stereotype around technically-gifted attackers like Maddison is that they shun the hard work, but that is far from the truth, and that will ensure Rodgers keeps picking him.

Lost ground but the 'Great Heist' can still be pulled off

City picked up a creditable point with a pleasing performance and yet find themselves further behind in the race for seventh following results elsewhere. But it’s one of their more difficult games ticked off.

Now, eight of their remaining 10 Premier League matches are against sides below them in the table. They will probably have to win them all to muster a challenge for the final European spot.

But add everything together – the performances, the fixture list, players’ return to fitness – and it does not feel like it is worth throwing in the towel.

Back in 2014-15, a relegation-battling City took 22 points from a possible 30 in their final 10 games. So it’s doable. If City can build momentum like they did with the Great Escape, City could yet pull off the Great Heist and steal a European berth that not too long ago seemed unattainable.

Buzz is back at Rodgers' Leicester .
In an exclusive interview, Brendan Rodgers talks substitutions, supporters, and hopes of European glory.Rodgers is proud of the performance. "Twenty minutes to go, 1-0 down, and we were still calm," he tells Sky Sports. "We played some great football." But as he begins to reflect on a special night, other memories of the past 24 hours return.

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