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As chapters in a fairy tale go, Leicester’s visit to Sunderland was far from pretty, but it made a magical ending even more likely.
Leicester scratched out a 2–0 victory in a scrappy, scruffy match on Sunday to stride closer to its unlikely goal of winning the Premier League.
Because second-place Tottenham walloped Manchester United in the final game of the weekend, Leicester’s lead stayed at seven points. But with five games to go Leicester’s magic number shrank to nine. That’s the number of points it needs to collect or Spurs must drop. Arsenal and Manchester City are still, mathematically, in the picture, but their chances are tiny.
“Only a step, but it’s a very big one,” Danny Drinkwater of Leicester told Sky TV, which broadcast the match.
“Tough, tough match, very difficult,” Claudio Ranieri told Sky. “Our opponent was very, very desperate.”
That desperation infected every part of another energetic but disjointed display from struggling Sunderland. While Leicester did not appear anxious, it seemed content to sink to Sunderland’s level.
Jamie Vardy’s second goal of the game, after added time expired, sealed a 2-0 victory and broke Leicester run of four 1-0 victories. Leicester has not let in a goal in 490 minutes of play (not counting added time). The steady improvement in the Leicester defense over the season is a tribute to Ranieri’s coaching, both in way he has drilled his defensive players and in the way he has allowed them to grow together as a unit.
Yet, continuing the fairy tale theme, the run of clean sheets also reflect the charmed life Leicester goal has led in the last three matches.
At Crystal Palace in mid-March, Damien Delaney of Palace hit the Leicester bar in added time. Against Southampton last week, Sadio Mané squandered a one-on-one (hitting Danny Simpson’s arm) with the game goalless.
On Sunday, trailing by one goal, desperate Sunderland created a series of good chances and squandered them with comical incompetence. Fabio Borini smashed one shot into his own face. Jermain Defoe slashed another high over the corner flag. Worst, Jack Rodwell smashed a wide-open chance over the bar from point-blank range.
“Jack Rodwell should have scored,” Sam Allardyce, the Sunderland manager told Sky. “We struggled to create any chances but so did Leicester.”
Ultimately, the difference between Sunderland and Leicester was Vardy, who does not panic. Both of his goals came on the breakaway.
“He does what every top goal scorer does and that’s why Leicester are top of the league,” Allardyce said. “That was the difference between the two teams.”
Younès Kaboul played Vardy impeccably for 66 minutes. But Kaboul is never going to manage 90 minutes without a lapse of concentration. As he hesitated, thinking Drinkwater had over-hit a long ball forward, Vardy accelerated. As the striker ran in on goal he was carrying the weight of the English league title on his shoulders. He provided the happy ending with cool aplomb.
In the next five games, Leicester only needs to manage the same trick three more times.
Don't believe the hype—With combined revenues, principally from broadcasters, set to pass $15 billion next season, the Premier League befits from an awful lot of favorable publicity from its media partners. In the past this has focused on the big-brand mega-rich teams: Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City. After all, who in Hong Kong or Omaha had heard of Leicester City?
In recent weeks, the hype machine has performed a smooth u-turn.
On Sunday, Leicester was again applauded off the field by opposing fans. The broadcasters might not like an under-dog, but the fans of many clubs evidently do.
Suddenly the narrative has changed. That untrue thing we’ve been saying for years about the Premier League being so competitive from top to bottom...well, maybe it is. And maybe that’s a good thing. (Though probably most broadcasters cannot wait to see United and Chelsea and Arsenal fighting for the title again. They all have more fans and more name recognition than Leicester.)
But will a Leicester title really be the greatest upset in English soccer history? The English league started in 1888. There was over a century of history before the Premier League and that history matters.
Leicester’s achievement is impressive in this era of freedom of contract, but, even if the Foxes win the title, there are two even more unlikely Cinderellas whose claim to the silver slipper of surprise should be acknowledged.
Under Alf Ramsey, Ipswich Town, a team with much less history than Leicester, won the second division in 1961 and the league the next year. That was miraculous.
As implausible was Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest, which finished third in the second division in 1977 to sneak into the top division, won the title the next year and the European Cup the year after that.
On Sunday, Leicester ensured it will finish in the top four and play in the Champions League for the first time. If it wins that, it will have matched Forest.
Fading hope—If Leicester players, coaches and fans had been offered a top-four finish at the start of the season, they would have accepted at once. If Tottenham had been offered a finish above Arsenal and a Champions League place, they would have taken that.
The immediate reaction of Tottenham players after the 3-0 victory over Manchester United on Sunday suggested that maybe they are beginning to accept that those targets are the best Spurs can hope for.
On Sunday, against Manchester United, a club it had not beaten at White Hart Lane since the last day of the 2001 season, Tottenham scored three times in six minutes to turn a relentless and finely-balanced contest into a rout. The impressive and resounding victory put Tottenham 12 points clear of fifth-place United and six clear of third-place Arsenal.
Spurs have not finished above Arsenal since 1995. They have not finished as high as second since 1963. Despite a recent habit of Spurs teams lead by Martin Jol and Harry Redknapp letting Arsenal overtake on the closing stretch, Sunday’s display suggests this Tottenham team is a tougher proposition. Leicester, with a seven-point lead, may be every bit as tough.
When asked about the title chase immediately after the game Dele Alli and Eric Dier naturally talked about trying hard and winning every game, but there was also a whiff of the concession speech about their remarks.
“We’ll keep plugging away,” Dier said. “But credit to Leicester they don’t seem to slip up.”
“No matter what happens it’s been a good year for us,” said Alli.
It has, by Tottenham standards, but as Ranieri said last week, these chances do not come along very often.
United purpose—For 70 minutes on Sunday, Manchester United provided a powerful advertisement for Louis van Gaal.
A team laced with young talent, partly because a horrendous run of injuries, went gone toe to toe with Tottenham. United’s players ran in packs and worked like dogs. For long stretches, United out-pressed the most relentless pressing team in the Premier League.
United created few chances, apart from one dazzling run and tame shot by Anthony Martial, but it also restricted Tottenham. Perhaps the turning point in the game was an injury to one of United’s teenagers.
After 68 minutes, Tim Fosu-Mensah, a strong, fast and skilful Dutch 18-year-old, who had been dominant on the right side of the United defense, limped off. On came Matteo Darmian.
Two minutes later, Harry Kane curled a sharp pass to Christian Eriksen on the Spurs left. Darmian was nowhere in sight as the Dane looked up and laid the ball into the path of the onrushing Alli.
Tottenham’s third, six minutes later, came from a Danny Rose cross to Erik Lamela from the same area.
The first hour showed that, after almost two seasons, Van Gaal has finally got United playing cohesive, skilful, high-tempo soccer as a unit. And United is doing it with a much younger team.
A three-goal defeat at Tottenham will stick in the craw of many fans, but Van Gaal is building a better United. The future looks brighter. Can United really fire him?
Down among the dead men—It is tempting to say that Sunderland shot itself in the foot on Sunday but since Black Cats cannot hit a goal from a yard away, they probably couldn’t even hit their own toes with a shotgun.
Sunderland can take consolation from the fact that this was a bad weekend for the entire bottom four.
Aston Villa is all but assured of relegation, having lost its eighth in a row, 2–1 to Bournemouth.
Newcastle was horrible as it lost, 3-1, at Southampton on Saturday. Every weekend, the Magpies find a new antihero. This weekend it was Steven Taylor, a veteran center back who has played more than 200 games for Newcastle, but who’s confidence looked shot as he attempted slow and timid backwards and sideways passes rather than try to push his team forward. He gave away two goals. Next week it will be someone else.
Newcastle stayed four points behind Sunderland. But Sunderland is not the target. It is four points from safety.
Norwich is the team on the ledge in 17th spot. The Canaries lost, 1-0, at 16th-placed Crystal Palace. The gap between those clubs is now six points. Palace is probably safe.
Newcastle has a game in hand – against Manchester City. Since the Magpies haven’t won since January, that extra game is just another chance to make their already dire goal difference worse.
The key game is next Saturday when Sunderland visits Norwich. Unlike Newcastle and Villa, both clubs have looked good at times in recent weeks. If Sunderland wins it will close to within a point of Norwich with a slightly better goal difference. If it loses, the gap will be seven points and Sunderland fans can join Newcastle and Villa fans in looking forward to a first-ever league meeting with Burton Albion.