Leicester eye history with three to go
Tottenham Hotspur, they're waiting for you.
Leicester City fans have never really been able to relax in this most enchanting of seasons at the top of the Premier League, so good have the north Londoners been in making sure Claudio Ranieri’s side can always feel warm breath on the back of their necks. But the stretch of road is running out.
This title race is far from over – Tottenham look good enough to win their last four games of the season, starting with Monday night’s clash against West Brom at White Hart Lane. In recent weeks Mauricio Pochettino’s side have stuck four past Stoke, torn apart Manchester United in six second-half minutes and scored five without reply against Aston Villa and Bournemouth combined.
Unsurprisingly, Ranieri declared again after Sunday’s thumping 4-0 win over Swansea that he expects them to win all four of their remaining matches this season.
But while this youthful, sizably English Spurs charge hasn’t looked like dying out in recent months, neither has the spirit Leicester have mustered for the best part of 13 months now. They shall not be moved.
“It’s this year or never more”
Three games stand between the Foxes and one of the most unlikely of titles in English football’s storied history. There have, of course, been shocks littered throughout the decades, but this is a very different era – one where local millions have been replaced by petrodollar billions and the emergence of a ever more powerful middle class has made it both easier and more difficult to dream.
What’s agreed is that this should not be happening. Think about it for too long and it’s the only conclusion that can be drawn.
“It is this year or never more,” Ranieri declared before Sunday’s match, nodding to next season’s wave of change at the summit of the Premier League – and no doubt at Leicester too, where a Champions League campaign awaits and a tight-knit squad will be strengthened accordingly.
Nobody knows where Leicester will be this time next year. Should they grab the five points they need to guarantee the top-flight crown over their last three matches of the season, nobody in this corner of the East Midlands will care either.
The final three
Just a year ago, Leicester were just pleased to be here at all. After all, this was a club that had sunk to its lowest ebb yet in 2008, when their last three games under Ian Holloway led to a first-ever relegation to the third tier. They got back up a year later, finishing their season at Southend, Scunthorpe and Crewe.
Seven years on, two play-off semi-final heartbreaks and, finally, one promotion back to the top flight later, and Leicester are here with three to play. They are here under the laughing-stock team-tweaker who has named an unchanged lineup 14 times this season; here with the team who at this stage of last season had only just gasped air after a perilous free-dive into the relegation zone.
Sunday’s thumping 4-0 victory over Swansea extended their battling unbeaten run to nine matches, the perfect response to an ill-tempered and dramatic draw with West Ham last time out that led to a Jamie Vardy-free starting lineup here.
On that occasion Leo Ulloa hopped off the bench to rescue a late point, and the Argentine followed it up a week later at the King Power Stadium with two more against a hopeless Swansea side who set up to avoid defeat but were reeling from a mistake from skipper Ashley Williams inside 10 minutes.
The Wales international’s cumbersome pass was gobbled up by PFA contender Riyad Mahrez, who kept his cool to slot past Lukasz Fabianski and open the scoring. In Vardy’s much-discussed absence Leicester needed their Algerian talisman to step up, and he did so by dovetailing brilliantly with opposite wingman Jeff Schlupp, the Foxes’ jet-heeled replacement for Marc Albrighton.
Leicester have been lazily labelled a two-man team on occasion this season, but this display was the best example yet of their well-balanced setup. Ulloa and Schlupp were arguably their standout performers on the afternoon, while substitutes Albrighton, Demarai Gray and Andy King had a hand in the former wrapping up the scoring on 85 minutes. (King, a Chelsea ball-boy during Ranieri’s Stamford Bridge days, has played in three divisions for Leicester since graduating from their academy in 2006.)
“Why be nervous?”
This will probably never happen again. There may be clubs like Leicester that come close to getting close, but the Law of Life dictates that surely, surely, the stars will not align as such to make it so after 35 matches of a Premier League season. There are simply too many variables, too many huge clubs whose enormous spending power will attract the world’s finest coaches and players.
But Leicester are slipping through the cracks, defying logic and living a dream they really should never have been allowed to get close to fulfilling. They have had some luck along the way, like all teams at the top require, and a dearth of big injuries – but the same could be said of Spurs too, who are always only one Harry Kane injury away from a worrisome stretch.
Leicester are not there yet – if nothing else, this season has taught us to consider expectations null and void – but they’re believing. And as for the nerves: what nerves?
“Why must we be nervous?,” pondered Ranieri post-match. “We have enjoyed the season, and we are achieving a lot. There are only three matches, and we know they are very important for our history. But for this reason we give everything.”
Spurs, it’s over to you once more.
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- Leicester registered their 22nd victory of the season, their biggest haul of wins ever in a top-flight season (21 in both 1928/29 and 1965/66).
- Swansea have enjoyed just 2 victories in their last 13 Premier League away games, drawing 3 and losing 8.
- Riyad Mahrez has been involved in a joint-league-high 28 top-flight goals this season (17 goals, 11 assists), level with team-mate Jamie Vardy.
- Mahrez has netted 4 goals in his two Premier League games against Swansea this season.
- Swansea lost by a 4+ goal margin for only the fourth time in their Premier League history (also two 5-0 defeats and one other 4-0 loss).
- Danny Drinkwater provided his 6th Premier League assist of the season, but his first for anyone other than Jamie Vardy.
- Leonardo Ulloa has scored 3 goals in his last 2 PL games, as many as he'd scored in his previous 25 this season.
- Only Steed Malbranque (26 in 09/10) has been subbed off more often in a single PL campaign than Shinji Okazaki this season (23).