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Leicester’s fourth straight 1-0 victory might suggest that the Premier League leader is crawling cautiously toward the finish line.
Yet there was little evidence of fear or caution as Leicester beat visiting Southampton on Sunday. The Foxes goal came from a header by center-back Wes Morgan following a set piece. That is the classic formula for a team grinding out victories. But that is not what Leicester did.
After Tottenham’s draw at Liverpool, Leicester knew it had a chance to stretch its lead to seven points. It came out to seize that chance. It could have won by a lot more than one goal.
"We saw the Tottenham game yesterday was a draw and wanted to make the most of our opportunity,” Morgan, the Leicester captain told the BBC. “We really wanted it today.”
Leicester had a scare with the scores still level when Sadio Mané broke free, rounded Kasper Schmiechel and then hit the only defender in the vicinity, Danny Simpson, on the arm with a shot.
The game might have changed if Southampton had scored first. It might also have changed if Simpson hadn’t wasted an equally good chance by shooting straight at goalie Frazer Forster and if Forster had not saved well from Jamie Vardy and from his own center back José Fonte.
Ronald Koeman, the Southampton manager, complained Simpson should have been sent off for the way he blocked Mané’s shot and that his team should also have had a penalty for that and a shot that hit Rober Huth’s hand. Either would have been harsh.
At some point in the six remaining games, Leicester’s luck might run out. With a seven-point, the Foxes can afford two disasters and still win the title. For now, as they accelerate away from the pack one 1-0 victory at a time, the spell doesn’t look as if it will be broken.
“We believe in what we are doing,” Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager told the BBC. “We believe it's a magical season.”
LOSING GROUND Eleven days ago, soccer entered the post-Cruyff era. Saturday’s frenetic 1-1 draw at Anfield between Liverpool and Tottenham was post-Cruyff soccer.
If Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona was the apotheosis of Johan Cruyff’s vision of how the game should be played, then Jürgen Klopp and Mauricio Pochettino are following inevitable coaching logic. If a tactic works, try doing it faster with bigger bodies. These are teams with players comfortable on the ball in every position – with the exception of Mamadou Sakho. They are also drilled, in the double training sessions both coaches like, to make the opposition uncomfortable on the ball.
The product on Saturday was 90 minutes of error-strewn mayhem. Between them the two teams managed 33 goal attempts. Many were fairly desperate, but they did include two pretty goals. The first scored by Philippe Coutinho, the second, inevitably, by Harry Kane.
“It was an open game, a little bit wild,” Klopp told the BBC. “Two teams with brilliant attitude, both wanted to win.”
Tottenham desperately needed to win. In the end it did well to salvage a draw at a ground where it has long struggled. But the single point, combined with the victories of the two teams immediately below it and, most of all, the one team above it, meant the result was a disaster for Tottenham’s title challenge.
The stats suggest that Spurs had a slight edge. The visitors had a distinct advantage in possession and managed three more shots. They also completed more than 78 percent of their passes while harassing Liverpool into completing less than 70 percent. The normally safe and reliable James Milner only succeeded with 27 of 42 passes. Simon Mignolet, the Liverpool goalie, only managed to clear the ball to a team-mate five times in 26 attempts, a reflection of his nerves and also of Tottenham’s relentless marking.
The stats are misleading.
Liverpool created the more dangerous chances. Hugo Lloris was brilliant in the Spurs goal. Daniel Sturridge wasted two chances he would have seized without a second thought before his latest injury.
The difference was Coutinho, who played a season under Pochettino at Espanyol. Tottenham’s three attacking midfielders, Christian Eriksen, the strangely subdued Dele Alli and the frenzied but wasteful Son-Heung Min, struggled yet again to find the sort of perfect pass that Coutinho seems to see so easily.
One outrageous dive apart, Coutinho was a poised triple threat throughout. He glided past defenders. He created chances with stiletto passes – he set up both Sturridge’s opportunities. He scored the goal with a clinical finish and completely wrong-footed Lloris with another shot that just missed.
Coutinho ran and ran, playing for Klopp he has to. But his brain was also working better, and faster, than any other attacking player.
“You play football with your head, and your legs are there to help you,” said Cruyff.
NORMAL SERVICE Perhaps what made this one of the most surprising Saturdays of this most surprising Premier League season is that Manchester City, Arsenal and Chelsea all did what they were supposed to do. City and Arsenal beat newly promoted Bournemouth and Watford. Chelsea beat nearly relegated Aston Villa. All three won 4-0.
Arsenal, as usual, has blown hot and cold all season. It is still in the title race so should be motivated. In any case, Watford is safe and already has the victory it wanted at the Emirates, in an FA Cup quarterfinal on March 13.
Many City players, on the other hand, had seemed to be going through the motions in the league, saving themselves for the Champions League while planning where they will be next season after Guardiola chucks them out.
On Saturday, against a Bournemouth team that has, like Watford, already achieved its over-riding objective of collecting enough points to survive, City started like a hurricane. It scored three in the first 19 minutes. Perhaps City was warming up its visit to Paris Saint-Germain on Wednesday.
On the other hand, perhaps the difference was the return of Kevin de Bruyne.
City had picked up seven points in the seven games the Belgian had missed. On Saturday, David Silva was suddenly energized. Sergio Agüerro scored.
De Bruyne was involved in all three of the City goals, scoring the second with a beautifully controlled and placed volley after a neat inter-change with Agüerro and Silva. They must be happy having their playmate back to share the burden of creating and scoring.
“Kevin demonstrated how good a player he is,” Manuel Pellegrini told the media after the game.
THE QUIET AMERICAN If you make your Premier League debut against Aston Villa, can you really say you’ve played a Premier League game?
Not that Matt Miazga is going to worry about that.
Villa was poor even before its players gave up. On Saturday, Chelsea won, 4-0, at Villa Park while appearing to be experimenting with “walking football,” a variation of the game designed for the over 50s by those worried that middle-aged people will fall down dead if they try running.
Of course, if there’s one club that likes to play old men, it is Chelsea. The team that won the title under Carlo Ancelotti in 2010, had an average age of 29, making it by far the oldest Premier League winner.
Even though Chelsea has invested hugely in building the best youth squad in English soccer, the owner’s impatient win-now attitude means the it has spent the last decade developing young talent for other clubs.
But with this season drifting into mid-table nothingness, Guus Hiddink, the caretaker manager, seems to have started building for a future he won’t share. Or maybe he just decided it was only fair to field youngsters against hapless Villa. Chelsea still took the home team to school.
Ruben Loftus-Cheek singled out for abuse by José Mourinho at the started of the season, caught the eye as he strolled around midfield and scored his first Premier League goal. He has just turned 20. Kenedy, also barely 20, and Baba Rahman, 21, also started on Saturday. They have all played a few times before.
The new name to English fans was Miazga. The center back played two seasons for the New York Red Bulls and is a full U.S, international. He joined Chelsea in January. At 20, he probably wouldn’t even have been bought if Mourinho had still been in charge. If he had, he would have been sent straight out on loan rather than play for Chelsea.
On Saturday he was on the field, looking understandably bemused. Three days earlier, Miazga had been sent off as the U.S. Under-23 team was eliminated from Olympic qualification by Colombia. He had a quieter time against Villa.
At 6'4", Miazga would have seemed to be the logical choice to man mark Rudy Gestede, Villa’s 6'4" lone striker. Instead Branislav Ivanovic, by some way the senior center back, took that responsibility. Miazga was left to try to look alert as he stood alone in an empty patch of penalty area waiting, usually in vain, for another Villa player to join the attack.
He probably won’t even need to wash the shirt he wore on his debut before having it framed as proof that he is a Premier League player.
NORTH EAST WOES Newcastle and Sunderland both played better on Saturday. Even so, their plights grew worse.
Newcastle fought with spirit in the second half at Norwich, twice coming from behind to draw level. The Magpies scored two goals away from home for only the second time this season. But it conceded goals in added time at the end of both halves and lost, 3-2.
Newcastle showed pluck, but it defense is still soft. if the Canaries and, in particular, Dieumerci Mbokani, had taken their early chances, the game would have been over by half time. The one consolation was that Karl Darlow, the third-choice goalie made some smart saves and no horrible errors.
The defeat left Newcastle six points behind the Canaries who are perched on the lowest safe rung on the ladder. Sunderland fell four points behind Norwich. The two clubs play on April 16.
At the Stadium of Light, Sam Allardyce also focused on a goalie as he reflected on Sunderland’s 0-0 draw with West Brom.
Allardyce said Ben Foster, the West Brom keeper, was “unbelievable” as Sunderland took 22 pots at goal. What was unbelievable was the wastefulness of Sunderland’s shooting. Only seven were on target and almost all of those flew straight at the hulking Foster. Jermain Defoe had eight shots and only managed to put two tamely on target.
On the other hand, Sunderland utterly dominated and West Brom did not manage a single shot on target.
“The elusive clean sheet came today, which was the most important thing,” Allardyce told the BBC.
“Well, we have got to beat Leicester next week,” he said.