Leicester Premier League lead looks unassailable, but will run-in cause a rumble?
Holly Thackeray | March 15, 2016
Leicester City are now odds-on at 8/11 with Coral to claim their first ever Premier League title, after remaining five points clear of Tottenham and widening the gap again for the rest of the chasing pack, with a triumph over Newcastle United on Rafael Benitez’s bow.
It is true that the Magpies were toothless, but the Tynesiders still forced a tight tussle, which the fierce Foxes came out of with flying colours.
Quite simply, this was the kind of clash a Jose Mourinho Chelsea vintage or Sir Alex Ferguson Manchester United side would have been heralded for squeezing three points from, with the result lauded as one of championship winning form.
Foxes dig in their heels
Punters may now have to wait until next term to find the Foxes at longer odds again, with a 50/1 outsider price already available for Leicester to win the league in 2016/17. While, Coral could lose around £4m in outright betting should the Foxes grab glory this year, after they were previously offered at 5000/1 to clinch the trophy before the season started.
Those odds just go to show how magnificent the Midlands men are playing in the moment, punching well above their weight, and pouncing mercilessly on the poor form of those with deeper pockets, in a way others (we’re looking at you Arsenal) have so far been unable.
We are still a long way from a victory parade with eight games to go but, whatever the final outcome, Leicester have undoubtedly achieved something magnificent this season, galvanising fans across the globe.
And, looking forward, this crucial win against relegation worries Newcastle could be a much bigger result than it appears on paper. These were the frays the Foxes were struggling to take spoils from last year, as they were firmly ensconced in their own drop zone duels.
So, fittingly, this Magpies match-up was truly a sign of their rapid development, and a reminder of Leicester’s ability to dig deep like a true underdog when it counts.
Such a test of organisation also allowed the Foxes’ spine of determined defensive players to shine, with N’Golo Kante at his best causing disruption at every turn, in the midst of his physical battle with Moussa Sissoko, and that stable back four in front of Kasper Schmeichel sticking to the script as seamlessly as ever.
Benitez words come back to bite
Before his dugout debut, new Newcastle boss Benitez disputed claims that being in the race for trophies requires a different approach to that of a relegation dog fight, telling press: “I’ve heard I’m not used to relegation battles… people say it’s not the same, but I think it is.
“You have to approach the games the same, you have to be calm, you don’t want to make mistakes.”
It seems as though the Spaniard’s words rang true at the King Power Stadium, just not for his team, as Leicester recalled their mental strength from troubles last term, looking every inch deserving of their position at the summit.
Pundits may question their experience at crunch points, claiming them more cubs than tods, but this skulk of Foxes know exactly what squeaky bum time is.
Far more than a two man team
In addition, the clamour around King Power for Shinji Okazaki’s excellent effort in the 25th minute to turn the game, with an intuitive overhead-kick, must have been refreshing.
For it was not Riyad Mahrez or Jamie Vardy, talented as they are, that netted the decider, but the selfless Japanese striker instead. The wonder goal saw Leicester win by a 1-0 margin for the third time in four matches, as they scrape closer to silverware, tapping into their energy reserves as we edge up to the run-in.
Of those aforementioned matches, Mahrez’s magic feet created the previous winner against Watford, with Danny Drinkwater and Andy King also on the scoresheet against West Bromwich Albion, and Leonardo Ulloa chipping in with a last-gasp effort to sink Norwich City.
Italian tactician Claudio Ranieri, no more ‘the Tinkerman’, has in his grasp a well-oiled machine, and truly a system which relies on a well-drilled a team, rather than just the excellence of the individual few. As Okazaki’s first King Power strike shows, there are eager game-changers across the park.
Leicester in line
In further testament to Ranieri, his team are certainly all singing from the same hymn sheet, with a clear train of thought emerging from recent quotes: one game at a time, substance over style.
The Roman coach stated of his side’s victory: “We played better at Aston Villa and in our last match here against West Brom, but we drew both of those games.
“We were very concentrated, and we won three points. At this stage of the season the points are important, not how you play.
“We got the goal and sat back a bit, it was ugly on our side but the points that matter”, added midfielder Drinkwater, whose performances have seen him tipped for an England cap.
While, as if reading from the same lines, resolute rearguard enforcer Wes Morgan said: “It wasn’t a pretty game but we got the points, which is most important. The games are getting ticked off – it will go to the last game. We are not watching where we might finish.”
A trip to the Palace beckons
Ranieri and his roster may not be getting carried away with trophy talk, but the coach did clock one thing during the game, saying: “I just look at the next match. Alan Pardew was upstairs watching us today, and it is going to be another tough game.”
Indeed, a trip down south to the capital to face Crystal Palace awaits next, as the Midlands men seek to keep momentum. The Eagles are out of form, at least in the league, but Leicester will, for once, perhaps be the team with most possession, forced to stave off counter-attacks similar to their own.
Though, points should still be pinched from Palace in their last March melee, and following scuffles against stuttering Southampton and shaky Sunderland, with Swansea City and Everton two more upcoming opponents that the Foxes can hunt on the break.
In a boost for the King Power club, there are no more title rivals to face in the final stretch between April and May, meaning it is all in their hands. Manchester United and their last outing against Chelsea seem the toughest on paper, but the Foxes have had both clubs’ numbers at home already.
So, the biggest stumbling block may be a mid-April encounter with West Ham United, who are similarly energetic, attack-minded, tactically adaptable and in-form. Leicester crucially boast home advantage for that battle, in a match where their fervent fanbase could have a huge say on whose cabinet the trophy resides.
Closest rivals Spurs, 12/5 for the title, meanwhile, have a much tougher finish in spring, with Liverpool, Man Utd and Stoke City their next three wrangles, and Newcastle, who may still be fighting relegation, to come on the last day.
So, with no more opportunities for trophy hunting foes to haul back the Foxes, Leicester, who have never before clinched a top-tier title, with their previous second spot finish way back in 1929, are no longer outsiders but instead on the verge of making history.