JAMIE VARDY dug deep in Braga’s famous ‘Quarry,’ Stadium to book Leicester’s place in the knockout stages – just as he was in danger of turning his side’s hopes to rubble!
The striker looked to have made a rare blunder when he decided against running down the clock by taking the ball to the corner flag in the final minute, only for Braga to nick possession from him.
Carlos Carvahal’s men made one final surge up the park and supersub Fransergio stuck a dagger into the Foxes hearts by popping up to poke the ball beyond Kasper Schmeichel to put his side 3-2 up.
It seemed to be the cruellest way to end a fairytale night for 19-year-old Luke Thomas who thought he had sealed a late draw with his first senior goal to send Leicester through until then.
But Vardy wasn’t about to feel sorry for himself and had the final say – as he usually does.
Five minutes into injury time he pounced on Marc Albrighton’s low cross to steer the ball into the gaping Braga net to send the Foxes through to the knock-out stages in the most dramatic way imaginable.
Leicester’s last visit to Portugal hadn’t exactly gone to plan either as Claudio Ranieri made 10 changes for a dead rubber against Porto and his shadow side were thumped 5-0.
Leicester only held out for six minutes before Andre Silva fired Nuno Espirito Santo’s Porto ahead.
Incredibly, Brendan Rodgers’ boys buckled even earlier this time and Schmeichel was cursing – not for the first time – as he picked the ball out of his net after four minutes.
Iuri Medeiros had a couple of pot shots blocked by James Justin and Luke Thomas but unfortunately for Leicester the second rebound landed at the feet of Ali Al Musrati.
The Libyan midfielder slammed a crisp low effort through a pack of Foxes and the ball sped into the far corner beyond an unsighted Schmeichel.
Having done so well to make a positive start, Braga then shot themselves in the foot by gifting the visitors an equaliser five minutes later.
This time Al Musrati was the villain as he casually passed to Kelechi Iheanacho following a Braga throw-in and the home side were caught on the hop.
Although Iheanacho’s progress was halted the ball fell to Harvey Barnes and the winger expertly hammered the ball high past Matheus at the ‘keeper’s near post.
Neither side seemed capable of stifling their opponents and this was far from the usual cat and mouse European fare as Braga swept forward relentlessly and they regained the lead before the half hour mark.
Dangerman Medeiros played a rapid 1-2 with Paulinho before springing Ricardo Horta who just managed to stay onside before rounding Schmeichel.
The Dane forced him wide but instead of shooting from a tight angle, the 26-year-old pulled the ball back to present Paulinho with an easy tap-in for his 12th European goal in 25 matches.
Under should have levelled before the break after Iheanacho robbed a sloppy Viana to set him up but Matheus denied the Turk, jabbing out his right glove to make a brilliant reflex save.
At the other end Schmeichel bravely blocked Horta and then defied Paulinho with another top-drawer save to keep Leicester in it.
Brendan Rodgers clearly wasn’t a happy camper and sent on Youri Tielemans and Wes Fofana for Christian Fuchs and Dennis Praet at the break, then brought out the big guns when James Maddison and Jamie Vardy were introduced just after the hour.
It took Vardy less than a minute to put the ball in the net but for once, the speedy striker had strayed a fraction offside.
With Zorya winning in Athens all Leicester needed was an equaliser to qualify for the knockout stages and Thomas thought he had provided it with his late goal.
However the real drama was only just beginning!
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