Torquay United were unceremoniously dumped out of the League Cup by Championship side Leicester City on Tuesday night as the Foxes emphatically highlighted the gulf in class between England’s second and fourth tiers by cruising to a 4-0 win.
Both sides had been eliminated early on in last season’s tournament, Torquay losing 4-1 at an impressive Southampton who would go on to earn promotion to the Premier League; Leicester reaching the third round before losing on penalties to divisional rivals Cardiff City.
With cup competitions such as this a valuable source of income for lower-league clubs, Torquay manager Martin Ling unsurprisingly selected his strongest outfit, although his hand was somewhat forced by the absence through injury of midfielders Danny Stevens, Lloyd Macklin and Nathan Craig, while £70,000 signing Billy Bodin was also unavailable after being called up to the Wales under-21 squad.
With Ling still able to pick from a full complement of players in other areas of the squad, United lined up with their first-choice defensive unit of goalkeeper Bobby Olejnik, full-backs Joe Oastler and Kevin Nicholson and centre-backs Brian Saah and Aaron Coombes, while Ryan Jarvis and Ian Morris replaced Stevens and Bodin on the wings as captain Lee Mansell was joined in the middle of the park by Damon Lathrope and new recruit Craig Easton. As was the case in 2011-12, targetman Rene Howe led the line on his own.
Though any combination of their impressive squad would have seen them enter the match as favourites, Leicester boss Nigel Pearson took no chances by selecting a strong starting XI that included former Manchester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, ex-England international Paul Konchesky, highly-rated winger Lloyd Dyer and forward Jermaine Beckford, who was Premier League side Everton’s joint-top scorer just two seasons ago.
Showing no signs of what was to come, the game’s early exchanges were surprisingly even, Leicester winger Ben Marshall firing well over from a decent position before Lee Mansell saw a dangerous header deflected over Schmeichel’s crossbar. Indeed, Torquay matched their illustrious opponents for the opening 20 minutes – and only a mistake at the back allowed Leicester to seize the initiative.
The sides had previously traded several long balls to no avail, and the aerial pass launched by Leicester’s defence on 21 minutes seemed to be no different. As United right-back Joe Oastler attempted to usher the ball harmlessly out of play for a goal kick, however, he inadvertently flicked the ball with his thigh, allowing his pursuer Nathan Dyer to burst into the box. The former West Brom winger showed his class by calmly rounding Michael Poke and slotting into an empty net.
Torquay responded quickly, and typically, it was Mansell who came closest to levelling the scores on the half-hour mark. The United captain thundered a header goalwards that Schmeichel tipped onto the bar, but Leicester learned their lesson and recovered quickly to double their lead ten minutes before half-time.
A Leicester counter-attack was somewhat slowed by an accidental trip from Damon Lathrope, but despite the visitors eventually firing off a shot that forced Michael Poke into a diving save, referee Oliver Langford chose to bring play back and award the free-kick. It was a harsh decision that annoyed many Torquay supporters, and their anger was quadrupled when Leicester’s Ben Marshall curled a brilliant effort over the wall and into the top corner of Poke’s goal.
The second goal represented a huge blow to Torquay’s chances of winning the game – even 1-0 down had been an uphill task, but that scoreline was still retrievable; a 2-0 deficit was unlikely to be overcome against a thoroughly professional Leicester side that had their hosts just where they wanted them.
Needing to pour more men forward to assist the isolated Howe if they were to get back into the game, Torquay began the second half in more attacking fashion, but as the game wore on, the Gulls’ defensive flaws were highlighted by a series of rapid Leicester counter-attacks. With most of the Torquay midfield stranded in the Leicester half as the visitors broke away, United’s defence was frequently exposed by the pace of Beckford and fellow forward Jamie Vardy, as well as wingers Dyer and Marshall, and the Foxes always looked like adding to their lead.
Even so, it came as something of a surprise when Leicester’s former Manchester United midfielder Matty James put the result beyond doubt just three minutes into the second half. Played through on goal by Beckford, the 21-year-old showed great composure to slide the ball past Poke and effectively end the game as a contest.
Tiring and increasingly struggling to contain Leicester’s rampant attack, Torquay spent much of the next 15 minutes trying to avoid falling further behind, Beckford only denied City’s fourth by an excellent recovery save from Poke after the ex-Leeds forward appeared to have rounded the goalkeeper.
As the game entered its final throes, both managers turned to their dugouts for inspiration; in doing so further highlighting the gulf in class between the two clubs. Pearson introduced David Nugent, Andy King and Neil Danns – the first two full internationals for England and Wales respectively, Danns boasting Premier League experience achieved at Blackburn aged just 20, while Ling brought on left-sided former Arsenal trainee Tom Cruise and youth-team products Niall Thompson and Ashley Yeoman, who have accumulated just tfive Football League appearances between them.
Though Thompson’s brief cameo showed glimpses of promise – including a threatening run that saw him turn former Liverpool defender Konchesky before delivering whipping a dangerous cross into the box – Leicester still looked the more likely team to score, and on 77 minutes £1 million signing Vardy rubbed salt into the Gulls’ wounds. The simplicity of the final goal was as depressing as the full-time result: a hopeful cross from Marshall was left by both of United’s centre-backs; Vardy ran through on goal, unchallenged, before nodding the ball over a stranded Poke who had rushed out, leaving his net unguarded.
Torquay will not face such quality in any of their 46 League Two fixtures this season, but without playmaker Eunan O’Kane’s creativity in midfield – replaced on Tuesday by the more industrious and defence-minded Craig Easton – the Gulls may struggle to unlock opposition defences, especially if Howe is deployed as the lone striker, a role that saw him easily outnumbered by Leicester’s back four.
United will hope to welcome back Stevens, Macklin and Craig in time for Saturday’s league opener at Fleetwood Town, and the pace of the former two players, combined with Craig’s central creativity, could prove key – either utilised from the start or from the bench. Thankfully for the club, United manager Ling resisted the temptation to dismiss the cup loss as a “nothing game”, admitting “We were well beaten on the night and if you play a team of Leicester’s quality, all 11 players need to reach their potential. We only had three or four players who did that… Overall, it was disappointing because we didn’t give Leicester a real game.”
Ling also criticized the performances of defenders Joe Oastler and Kevin Nicholson (the latter’s uncharacteristically poor dead-ball delivery being a large source of disappointment for supporters) as well as his side’s attacking play: “the full-backs were not up to the standard I expect, and I don’t think our passing asked them enough questions…I was hoping Leicester would be another building block in terms of confidence after the Leeds and Stoke [pre-season friendly] games, but we had a reality check. Their movement was excellent but we made it too easy for them.”
Torquay: Poke, Oastler, Saah, Downes, Nicholson; Jarvis (Yeoman 76), Mansell (C), Lathrope, Easton (Thompson 64), Ian Morris (Cruise 72); Howe. Subs not used: Rice, MacKenzie, Craig.
Leicester: Schmeichel, De Laet, Morgan (C), Moore, Konchesky; Marshall, Drinkwater (Danns 78), James (King 74), Dyer (Nugent 67); Vardy, Beckford. Subs not used: Logan, Waghorn, Gallagher, Schlupp.
Referee: Oliver Langford.
Attendance: 3,367 (1,166 Leicester).
Images: Marshall – BBC/Getty Images; Leicester team celebration – http://www.lcfc.com/