BIRMINGHAM, England (Reuters) – Leicester City went back to the top of Premier League on Saturday with a 1-1 draw at Aston Villa but there was the unmistakable sense of an opportunity blown after Riyad Mahrez had missed a potential game-winning penalty for the Foxes.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said he felt “it was a pity” that his side did not ram home their first half control at Villa Park when leading 1-0 through a Shinji Okazaki goal and then awarded a penalty for Aly Cissokho’s handball.
Yet Mahrez, one of the stars of their eye-opening season, struck a tame spot kick straight down the middle that goalkeeper Mark Bunn saved with his feet.
It was Mahrez’s third missed spot kick of his otherwise spotless campaign and, suitably reprieved, bottom club Villa, fresh from some respite in their wretched season following the midweek 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace, took heart.
They produced a much-improved second half performance, sealed by substitute Rudy Gestede’s 76th-minute equaliser from a thumping shot which deflected off Wes Morgan’s hand.
Mahrez, who was substituted, was said by Ranieri to be “very sad at the end of the match” but the manager also told the BBC: “He is our penalty scorer. He lost the last two but for me it is important now how he reacts.
“You can make mistakes but your reaction is important.”
Despite having won only one of their last five league games, Ranieri was still familiarly upbeat about his side’s progress, although Jamie Vardy’s late blazing miss in front of goal denied them a three-point lead instead of a one-point advantage at the top of the table.
“Our next target is 40 more points. We achieved 39 in the first half of the season, and we want to improve. I know it is very difficult and ambitious but why not?” Ranieri added.
“It was a pity (we didn’t win) because we were in control. Of course, they tried to push but there was no clear action from them, and we missed two chances on the counter, but that is football. We take one point, it’s okay.”
The Foxes’ fairytale had earlier shown no sign of losing any allure as a moment of brilliance from Vardy set them on their way to what had looked likely to be yet another win on the road for the league’s most successful away-day team.
Vardy’s instinctive first-time lob produced a brilliant back-pedalling save from Bunn only for Japanese international Okazaki to be first to the rebound, with his follow-up strike being confirmed with the aid of technology after Bunn had clawed his effort back from beyond the goalline.
Villa remain stranded by six points at the foot of the table but their manager Remi Garde felt there had been important shift in his team’s fortunes during the week.
“If you look at the level of the game between the teams there was not the huge gap you can see on the table,” he insisted.
(Reporting by Ian Chadband, editing by Tony Jimenez and Pritha Sarkar)