Harvey Barnes advances England claims as Leicester City beat an Aston Villa side missing Jack Grealish
With Jack Grealish absent through injury, it was two other young English attackers who took centre-stage in front of Gareth Southgate at Villa Park.
James Maddison and Harvey Barnes both displayed a fine sense of timing ahead of this year’s European Championships with excellent performances for the England manager to ponder.
Maddison has been involved in nine goals in his last ten Premier League appearances, scoring his fifth here, while Barnes now has 13 for the season in all competitions.
Both players are on course for recalls to the England squad for next month’s World Cup qualifiers, while Villa were given a glimpse of a future without Grealish.
Leicester were vastly superior in the first-half and resisted an improved performance from the hosts in the second to strengthen their grip in the top-three after a ninth away win of the season.
Brendan Rodgers is now nine points ahead of his former club Liverpool and the consistency of Maddison and Barnes this season will provide huge encouragement ahead of the final 13 games.
Rodgers said: “Both these boys are improving constantly. Maddison occupied the spaces really well and he’s so creative.
“I thought Harvey was incredible. When you’re a young player it’s about adjusting and adapting. He looks like he’s going to score in every game he plays.
“All the players gave absolutely everything and it was a great victory for us. There’s a greater calmness this season and my ambition was always to challenge the top clubs and compete for European football.”
Leicester had only arrived back from Prague in the early hours of Friday morning after their Europa League tie, but should have been out of sight by half-time here.
Villa clearly missed the invention and guile of Grealish, who was left out for the first league game of the season due to a suspected shin issue which restricted his training last week. He will almost certainly miss the visit to Leeds this Saturday.
At a time when Dean Smith desperately needed his other key players to step up in Grealish’s absence, the likes of Ross Barkley, Douglas Luiz and Anwar El Ghazi were anonymous.
For all of Villa’s undoubted progress since returning from the first lockdown, there remain concerns over the strength in depth.
Smith said: “You’re always going to miss a top-class player, take Jack Grealish out of any team and you’d miss him but the XI that was out there was good enough to win.
“He wasn’t right for this game but it won’t be a long-term injury. I’ll have to be guided by Jack and the medical staff on when he returns.
“It took some harsh words at half-time from me to lift us. I felt in the first-half their big players turned up and ours didn’t. It’s a long way back after giving away two goals in a poor first-half.”
Leicester were full of verve and vigour, with the opening goal finally coming in the 19th minute as Maddison chose another perfect moment to make his mark in front of Southgate.
Finding space on the edge of the area, after Villa had struggled to clear, the £25 million signing guided a shot past Emiliano Martinez and in off the post.
Leicester added a second four minutes later, with Barnes smashing a shot into the roof of the net after Martinez could only parry Jamie Vardy’s close-range effort.
The goal was again due to a huge amount of space in the middle, with Barkley at fault for failing to track back. He was taken off in the second-half and could have no complaints.
With Villa’s Matty Cash also injured, it was a difficult afternoon for Ahmed Elmohamady at right-back against the pace and direct running of Barnes.
Villa had been poor in the first-half but did respond, scoring three minutes into the second, after Bertrand Traore hooked home from close-range.
Leicester suffered a further blow in the 64th minute when Maddison was taken off as a precaution due to an issue with his hip.
Yet the anticipated late pressure never really materialised and Villa have now lost five league games at home.