With a late goal from an academy graduate and an even later one from an all-time club great, Leicester completed a second-half fightback in Portugal and confirmed their progress to the Europa League knockout stages.
Brendan Rodgers’s team started badly in Braga and were at risk of a heavy beating until the manager made changes to stimulate a dramatic improvement after the interval. They drew level thanks to Luke Thomas’s first senior goal for the club he joined as an eight-year-old. Then they seemed to let qualification slip again when Fransérgio struck in the 90th minute, but that merely set the stage for Jamie Vardy to steal the show by making it 3-3 in the fifth minute of stoppage time.
In the first half Leicester were outplayed by a team they had dismantled just a few weeks previously. It did not take Braga long to set about atoning for the 4-0 loss at the King Power as they scored after four minutes and despite frittering that lead five minutes later, they dominated the first period, with Paulinho making it 2-1 before the interval.
Rodgers reached for plan B, which involved the introduction of some rested A-listers: Vardy, Youri Tielemans, Wesley Fofana and James Maddison. “Our plan was to play the system we started in and if we had to chase the game we would change the shape, 3-1-4-2, and those players would change the dynamic of the game,” explained Rodgers. “They are highly gifted players and made a big difference.” They sure did.
At first Leicester began as passively as they had been at Liverpool on Sunday. They fell behind when Al Musrati swept a fine low shot into the net from over 20 yards. The scorer then inadvertently gave Leicester a route back into the game five minutes later with a mislaid pass to Kelechi Iheanacho at the edge of the area. André Castro poked the ball off the Nigerian’s foot but it broke to Harvey Barnes, who slammed it home from eight yards.
Braga restored their lead with an exquisite goal. Al Musrati set a fine one-touch move in motion with a deft pass to Paulinho, who sliced through the defence with a sharp one-two involving Iuri Medeiros and then slipped a pass to Ricardo Horta. Kasper Schmeichel rushed out to force Horta wide but the forward kept his cool and rolled the ball across to Paulinho to finish from close range.
Schmeichel had to make several saves to keep the score down before the interval but Leicester raised their intensity after that and forced the home side backwards. Maddison produced some magic to help bring the score to 2-2, turning Ricardo Esgaio inside out before firing the ball across the face of goal. There was Thomas, the left wing-back, in the six-yard box to divert it into the net despite Matheus’s desperate attempt to claw it away.
When Fransérgio scored at the end of a deadly counter-attack in the 90th minute, Leicester’s heads could have dropped. Instead they fought back again, and when Marc Albrighton sent a low cross to the far post, Vardy produced a finish to celebrate. “In the first half we were too static and we weren’t aggressive enough, but in the second half we were outstanding,” said Rodgers. “It’s great to qualify. Our ambition now is to go on and win the group.”