Leicester seizes chance in EPL race; Seats get hotter after FA Cup semis
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Once again, Leicester struggled to complete passes at the same rate as even a below average Premier League team. Once again, it did not matter.
On Sunday, Leicester completed just 74.1% of it passes. Its opponent, Swansea, completed 83.6%. And Swansea attempted almost 40% more passes. But the misplaced pass that settled the Leicester nerves and, effectively, the match, was made by a Swansea player.
After 10 minutes, Ashley Williams, the Swansea captain whose job includes passing the ball from the center of defense, aimed a ball out to the left wing. The pass struck Riyad Mahrez and bounced down in front of the Leicester man. Mahrez then finished with foxy aplomb, leaving Williams and goalie Lukasz Fabianski flat-footed with a shot inside the near post.
The interception was not simply lucky.
“We know this team passes the ball really well,” Claudio Ranieri told Sky TV after the game, saying that he had urged his team to work hard at shutting down that passing with a “solid press,” although Mahrez was the only Leicester player in the vicinity when Williams kicked the ball at him.
The early lead meant Leicester could sit back, defend and pick off Swansea on the counter-attack or with set pieces. Even without suspended striker Jamie Vardy, it worked like a dream. Leicester crushed Swansea, 4-0.
Vardy’s replacement, Leonardo Ulloa, headed the second goal from a free kick after 30 minutes. In the second half, Leicester defended in depth. At times the most advanced Leicester player was Ulloa, 20 yards inside his own half. In some ways, Ranieri’s smartest tactical move was bringing in Jeff Schlupp, instead of Marc Albrighton, to supply the blistering pace that Vardy normally offers.
Swansea was camped in the Leicester half for long periods but only managed one shot on goal.
After an hour Schlupp burned through the Swansea defense to set to set up a second for Ulloa. Albrighton came on to complete Leicester’s biggest victory of the season.
It was quite a statement. The pressure was on. Vardy was missing. The Leicester fans chanted “4-0 to the one man team!”
With three games to play, Leicester needs five points to be sure of winning the title. That’s two victories or one victory and two draws. It might not be as easy as it seems. If Vardy loses his appeal against a longer ban on Monday, he could miss one or even two more games. Next week, Leicester goes to Old Trafford where the home side is used to opponents defending en masse. If Leicester loses, suddenly it might to need to win both its last two games.
“We had a dream but now it is important to make a dream reality,” Ranieri said. “Now we are to fight for the reality.”
Dream battle — Perhaps Leicester's large step towards its dream will interfere with those of the Tottenham players on Sunday night.
While Mahrez and several Leicester teammates were climbing on a helicopter to fly down to London for the annual awards ceremony of their union, the Professional Footballers Association, Tottenham players were stuck at home mulling over what they had just seen.
Leicester and Tottenham dominated the nominations for this season’s player of the year. Three of the six nominees for the main award were Leicester players (The winner Mahrez, Vardy and N’Golo Kanté), one, Harry Kane, was from Tottenham. Kane and teammate Dele Alli were among the six nominees for best young player (Alli won).
The team of the year, which was leaked ahead of the awards, contains seven players from either Leicester or Spurs – the five nominees for individual awards plus Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose.
Mauricio Pochettino has forbidden his players to attend the awards, at a London hotel just over eight miles from White Hart Lane. They have a league match against West Brom 24 hours later. So it’s a quiet night at home (tweeting about the awards as they watch on TV, no doubt) and an early night for them.
Maybe Leicester’s victory will disturb Tottenham dreams, but Arsenal’s draw at Sunderland means that, barring a scoring explosion by Manchester City, Spurs probably only need five points from its last four games to finish second, something it has not done for more than 50 years. That would have been a dream for Spurs before this season.
Spoiler alert — Several Chelsea players have been stirring up potential trouble for themselves by publicly saying that they don’t want Spurs to win the league.
In the complicated ecology of London soccer where everybody hates everyone else, Chelsea fans (like West Ham and Arsenal fans) really loathe Tottenham.
On Saturday, after Chelsea had strolled to a 4-1 victory at Bournemouth in the lazy spring sunshine, Eden Hazard told the BBC: “The fans, the club, the players, we don't want Tottenham to win the Premier League."
Last week, Cesc Fàbregas told Sky: “I don't want Spurs to win it - I want to be honest and clear.”
Both men said they thought Leicester deserved the title, though supporting the underdog can hardly be the party line at Roman Abramovich’s Chelsea.
It is always reassuring to find that players are also fans. But, even though Fàbregas started his career as a teenage Tottenham killer at Arsenal, it is hard not to suspect there is an element of the cynical badge kissing players use to win over fans. Both men know Chelsea fans are not happy with them this season.
Chelsea could play a decisive role in deciding whether Spurs or Leicester win the title. Its two remaining games in front of the Stamford Bridge fans are against Spurs next week and then Leicester on the final day of the season.
What happens if Leicester needs to win at Stamford Bridge on the final day and Chelsea plays badly (again) and loses?
A bit of cute banter could turn into a serious professional embarrassment for Fàbregas and Hazard.
In the hot seat — For those wondering whether the cup is half full or half empty, the sight of swathes of unfilled seats at Wembley on Sunday as Crystal Palace beat Watford, 2-1, raises more than a philosophical question. For the second FA Cup semifinal of the weekend, the stadium was a long way from full.
While many of the seats might have been empty and unwarmed, three of the four managers who sat on pitch-side over the weekend might have felt their backsides growing uncomfortably hot.
If the diminished FA Cup still has enough value to save a manager’s job, Quique Sánchez Flores of Watford and Roberto Martínez of Everton lost their chances to find out.
Despite leading Watford to safety in its first season back in the Premier League and in his first year in England, Flores has reportedly failed to satisfy the club’s owners Gino and Giampaolo Pozzo. Should they fire the coach, it will be the seventh change in manager in the five years since the Pozzos took over.
Everton does things differently. Martínez could be safe even though his far more talented team is level on points with Watford in the lower half of the table. Everton also lost its semi-final, 2-1. But the match against Manchester United on Saturday was an altogether different spectacle from the tepid spectacle the next day.
Anthony Martial won it for United in the dying seconds. It was old story for Everton this season, stumbling to defeat in a game it could have won. It’s one reason Evertonians are losing patience with their manager. The defeat might not end the Martínez era, but it could increase the likelihood that Romelu Lukaku will remain at the club next season.
The striker showcased his clumsy side. Lukaku missed a penalty, although the reason he took the spot kick with Leighton Baines on the field is a mystery. Lukaku also wasted three other excellent chances, a couple because of his poor first touch. Away from goal he also struggled to hold the ball and pass to teammates.
Thanks to Martial, the third endangered manager, Louis can Gaal, survived to fight on in the Cup. But he might find that even winning United’s first FA Cup since 2004 is not enough to save his job. He woke on Sunday to headlines saying José Mourinho will definitely replace him in the summer. For the Dutchman, dragging his team past wobbling Arsenal and into fourth in the Premier League might be a better way to preserve his job.
There are no medals for finishing fourth in the league, but those for the FA Cup have so little value these days they might as well be made of tin.
Canaries in the coalmine — It was another bad weekend for Norwich, and it did not even play.
Its two rivals in the three-way fight to avoid the drop both picked up points that were at the same time slightly fortuitous and wholly deserved. The Canaries slid back into the relegation pit.
Newcastle somehow fought back to draw, 2-2, against Liverpool on Saturday. It conceded after two minutes at Anfield and was two goals down after 30 minutes. For much of the season, Newcastle would have given up at that point. Instead it stiffened. Liverpool dominated possession but only managed two more shots on target.
Papiss Cissé pulled one goal back with a classic Newcastle far-post header. Jack Colback leveled with a shot that two deflections to leave Simon Mignolet flat-footed.
"We had to fight and show more character,” Rafa Benítez, the Newcastle manager, said of the second half. But that could apply to much of Newcastle’s season. Benítez has begun to squeeze some goals from a talented collection of attacking players and to instil some resolve and organization in what had been a horrible defense.
The Magpies are a point of the first safe team, which is now Sunderland. Newcastle’s problem is that it has played one more match and has a far worse goal difference.
At Sunderland, Sam Allardyce has had longer to build from the back. On Sunday, against an Arsenal team that, for periods, moved the ball with menace in attacking third, Sunderland’s defense stayed solid. Vito Mannone, in goal, made several sharp saves, but so did Petr Cech at the other end as Sunderland took control in the second half.
"We've got ourselves out of the bottom three now for the first time in many months and the challenge now for the lads is to stay out of it," Allardyce told the BBC, but he must be contemplating the fixture list with satisfaction.
Sunderland’s remaining games are against four teams whose seasons are effectively over: Stoke, Chelsea, Everton and Watford. Newcastle and Norwich both have one game fewer. Newcastle’s season ends with a tough match: a visit from Tottenham. By then, Norwich could be gone. It visits Arsenal next and hosts Manchester United the following week.