EPL Notes: Leicester City, West Ham thriving under pressure

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After Leicester drew at home with West Brom on Tuesday, the British bookies made Tottenham the title favorite. Five days later, Leicester is again five points clear and back in control of the Premier League race.

At Watford on Saturday evening, the Foxes won a sprightly match between two hard-working, well-organized teams with one moment of cool brilliance by Riyad Mahrez. Watford huffed and puffed but it has now failed to score in four of its last five matches. Leicester’s defense held firm. It won, 1-0.

“Every match now is very, very difficult,” Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester manager, told Sky. “But for all the rest of the Premier League.”

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At the moment, the Foxes are handling the pressure better than the chasing hounds. The night after Leicester threw away two points in midweek, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City all threw away three. While City squashed Villa on Saturday, Tottenham and Arsenal canceled each other out in a 2-2 draw at White Hart Lane. Leicester has picked up four points in its last two matches; the two London clubs have picked up two between them.

Ranieri is not looking over his shoulder.

“I don’t know who is behind us,” he said. “I want to run very fast.”

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Leicester has experience of accelerating through the end of the season. It is on top of the league with 60 points after 29 games. At the same point last season, Leicester was in last place with 19 point, nine behind Hull, which eventually was relegated. Last season, Leicester won seven of its last nine games. If it handles the pressure as well now as it did then, the only way it could lose the title is if Spurs win all their remaining matches.

“We are running for something special and why not,” Ranieri said. 

Kasper Schmeichel, the goalie, knew he was offering the usual clichés when he said: “To be honest, and people will probably think I’m lying, it’s literally one game at a time because that’s what’s got us where we are.”

But he gave away that he is thinking of the title when he added: “If we start getting ahead of ourselves we risk blowing it.”

“It” is presumably the title. It is Leicester’s to fumble or grab.

Who invented football? — Ranieri was justifiably indignant this week at suggestions that Leicester had not invented soccer. The truth, this season, is that this is precisely what the Foxes have done.

On Tuesday, Charlie Stillitano, the NY/NJ MetroStars GM turned soccer impresario, met with representatives of the two Manchester clubs, Liverpool, Chelsea and Arsenal in London. The discussion might, or might not, have involved the creation of a franchise-based European super-league.

Stillitano is also a host on SiriusXM, a U.S radio network. He asked listeners: “What would Manchester United argue: did we create soccer or did Leicester?”

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These were breathtakingly ill-judged remarks that instantly made it politically impossible for the project to go ahead if Stillitano is involved.

The easy answer is that whoever invented soccer it certainly wasn’t United.

If you want a league made up of clubs that can claim to have invented soccer you might include the six Lancashire teams, none from Manchester, and six Midland clubs, including Stoke, West Brom and Aston Villa, which played the sport’s first league season in 1888 and turned the game professional.

You could add Sheffield FC, the oldest club in the world from the city that saved soccer when it was being overwhelmed by rugby. Then there are the Old Etonians, the Wanderers, Oxford University and Royal Engineers, the four teams that dominated the first eight years, from 1872-78, of the first ever competition, the FA Cup.

Looking beyond England, there are several candidates. They all have one thing in common. There is Queen’s Park from Glasgow, which astonished English teams by passing the ball when it played in the inaugural FA Cup. There's Rapid Vienna, which created a central European style of soccer in the 1930s, and Honved, home of Ferenc Puskas, Sandor Kocsis, Jozsef Boszik and the other Mighty Magyars who redefined soccer after the Second World War. Finally, of course, there is Real Madrid, who set the standards for the early European Cup, and Barcelona, which has refined the culture of the pass. All these clubs invented the game anew.

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That is what Leicester and to, a lesser extent, Tottenham have done this season. They have challenged our preconceptions of how the Premier League must work. They have reminded us that soccer is a team game rather than a sport for random collections of celebrities. Leicester and Spurs, with wildly contrasting styles, are outperforming richer rivals. They offer a reminder that soccer is about finding tactical solutions that match a team’s financial and playing resources and that, as soccer evolves, those solutions keep changing.

Stillitano made it clear that it is not the game on the field he is talking about. It is “the money pot created by soccer and the fandom around the world” that United invented.

United like Chelsea and, to a lesser extent, Arsenal and City have been guilty of mistaking that money pot for the main goal. While United have been squandering money on marquee names such as Angel di María, which look good on the back of team shirts, Leicester has been buying cheaper players who are good in the team on the field. The rich clubs have been badly run, that’s why they are thinking of running away.

Leicester has destroyed the entrenched idea that that financial might made the big four (not you, Liverpool) untouchable. Leicester has reinvented the game.

The spoiler — After 71 minutes at Goodison Park, West Ham was being outplayed by 10-man Everton, losing by two goals and facing a penalty kick. The Hammers seemed a shadow of the team that had outworked and outfought hated London rival Tottenham at home on Wednesday.

Then Adrián saved Romelu Lukaku’s tame penalty and Everton’s bubble burst.

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West Ham scored three times in the last 12 minutes, with Dmitri Payet flicking in the winner in added time.

“When we scored the first one of course you are starting to believe it even more,” Slaven Bilic, the West Ham manager, told Sky.

West Ham remained fifth, a point behind Manchester City but now only three behind Arsenal, which pays its last ever visit to Upton Park on April 9.

West Ham fans expect to see their dreams fade and die, perhaps this is the season when they can believe it will go differently.

Showing some masculinity — After Arsenal lost 3-2 at Old Trafford last weekend, former Liverpool midfielder Graeme Souness said the Gunners lacked guts.

When Arsenal lost, 2-1, at home to the Swansea second string on Wednesday, its fans went berserk questioning the heart of their team.

On Sunday, in the North London derby, Arsenal showed it has guts – though not always brains. Francis Coquelin was sent off in the 55th minute after committing the dumbest of fouls to earn a second yellow card. With the scores level, Per Mertesacker stopped chasing a ball that appeared to be going out. Dele Alli did not. He raced past the German and set up Harry Kane for a spectacular strike.

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With the rain pouring and the fans roaring, Arsenal, a man short and a goal down, might have crumpled. Instead it fought back. Alexis Sánchez ended an 11-game league scoring slump in the 76th minute. After that, Arsenal held on comfortably to gain a point with a 2-2 draw. It is still three points behind Spurs, but this game must have felt like a defeat to Tottenham and a victory to the Gunners.

“We have to take encouragement from our performance today,” Arsène Wenger the Arsenal manager told Sky Sport. ““I am happy and proud and performance of our attitude. We refused to lose the game.”

Of course the confidence could quickly evaporate. One more bad loss and the supporters will turn on their players again.

“The pressure from our fans is relentless,” said Wenger.

Mind the gap — At the bottom of the table, Saturday felt like a pivotal day.

Suddenly, the gap between Swansea in 16th and Sunderland in 17th is eight points. The three relegated teams will come from the current bottom four.

“It’s a four team league,” Steve McClaren, the Newcastle manager, told Sky.

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While Sunderland was merely sloppy as it conceded a late, late leveler at home to 10-man Southampton, Newcastle, Norwich and Aston Villa were all somewhere on the scale between bad and utterly incompetent.

Villa, in sickly-colored shirts, was sliced apart by the lukewarm knife that is Manchester City. Villa held on for 48 minutes partly thanks to some heroic goalkeeping by Brad Guzan. Then, undermined by a couple of cruel bounces, it collapsed and lost, 4-0. It is nine points behind Sunderland and a chance at Premier League safety. Villa is so bad that even if the three clubs above it all lose their remaining nine matches, it will still probably finish last.

And Newcastle and Norwich do look capable of losing all their remaining matches although, presumably, at least one of them will avoid defeat when they meet at Carrow Road on April 2.

Newcastle’s defense was a shambles and its midfield refused to tackle as it lost, 3-1, at home to Bournemouth. Newcastle is expected to fire McClaren at any moment and, while Krusty the Clown could hardly do a worse job, it’s hard to see how any coach can turn the Magpies into a competitive team in time to escape.

Meanwhile Gianni Infantino, the new head of FIFA, showed his willingness to face the grim side of his new position, by choosing to watch Swansea-Norwich as his first match as president. Or maybe he doesn’t really know that much about soccer. The game was, predictably, a snoozer.

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Norwich gave as good as it got. But since the Swans are tied with Newcastle for the worst attack in the Premier League, that isn’t saying much. Between them, the two teams managed two shots on target in the first half. By the end that had risen to six, shared evenly. The difference is that Norwich, seemingly forgetting you need goals to win games, is playing Cameron Jerome at center forward. Swansea scored, through Gylfi Sigurdsson. Norwich didn’t. The Canaries have lost eight and drawn one of their last nine league games. That is relegation-worthy form.

Alex Neill, the Norwich manager, took consolation from the fact that bad as Norwich is, they are no worse than their rivals.

“Although our run of form been really poor we’ve still got teams next to us,” he told Sky.

After Sunderland conceded a 93rd minute goal and drew 1-1 at home against Southampton, manager Sam Allardyce reported, “total dejection in the dressing room.”

That mood will improve when his team, and it is a team, watches the Newcastle and Norwich lowlights. It might be that all the Black Cats need to do is win at Newcastle in its next match and at Norwich on April 16.