West Brom-Leicester City Preview
Funny what a difference a year makes.
Now on the one-year anniversary prior to their charge from worst to first in the Premier League, Leicester City try to maintain the pressure on their pack of pursuers Tuesday at King Power Stadium against West Bromwich Albion.
On March 1 of last year, the Foxes (16-8-3) were last in the table on 18 points, four from safety under Nigel Pearson. Leicester charged to the tape with a 7-2-3 finish and haven't looked back, amassing a league-best 79 points over their last 38 league matches. That total eclipses Arsenal by four points and both Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur by eight.
As their dream ride still shows no signs of being grounded, current boss Claudio Ranieri pegged Leicester's five-match stretch that started last weekend as the true barometer of his team's title chances. During a soft patch of opponents, those closest in the chase could conceivably kill each other off, providing the Foxes the daylight they need to claim a Premier League title no one in their right minds could have imagined.
"Everybody knows us and we have to continue with our football, be intelligent and wait for the right moments," Ranieri told the team's official website. "We know (West Brom) counter well and are very dangerous at corners. They scored eight or nine goals from set plays. Very dangerous."
Leicester maintained their two-point advantage over Tottenham Hotspur - who host third-place Arsenal on Saturday after playing at West Ham United on Wednesday - by grinding out a 1-0 victory over Norwich City on Saturday. Forced to carry play against the Canaries' five-man backline, the Foxes found it tough going as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez doggedly carved out precious few scoring chances.
As Leicester's fitness gradually aided their ascendancy, it was Ranieri moving pieces befitting his "Tinkerman" moniker - first introducing Jeff Schlupp and Andy King. As Norwich wilted, Ranieri called upon striker Leonardo Ulloa in the 78th minute, and the Argentine added his name to the long list of heroes in Leicester City's improbable run on 89 minutes with a cool finish from close range.
It was the prototypical counterattacking goal played out time and again by the Foxes - Mahrez carrying and carrying until laying the ball off at the last possible instant to a hard-charging Marc Albrighton, who sent an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box with his first touch. As Vardy drew two defenders to him while getting a crucial touch past Norwich goalkeeper John Ruddy, Ulloa was unmarked for the clinical and pivotal finish on the back post.
"You could lose the game, but one point is nothing," Ranieri said. "We took the risk against Norwich, but the manager is there for this reason.
"I will take a lot of risks; we have to be in or out."
One player definitely out for Ranieri is N'Golo Kante, the tireless midfield destroyer who allows Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater to maraud with the ball on the counter. Kante will likely also miss Leicester's weekend match at Watford with a hamstring injury, and Ranieri is hoping his absences don't go beyond that.
King likely will take Kante's place in the midfield, and defender Danny Simpson is available after serving his red card suspension for his sending off against Arsenal. It is possible, though, Daniel Amartey will get his second straight start after acquitting himself well for 78 minutes versus Norwich, and Schlupp's long-awaited return from injury gives Ranieri another option.
"Every time I put King in the squad he is excellent and I am very confident with him," Ranieri said. "He has another style of football and he has to do his job, not Kante's job."
Though tied with Spurs for the league lead with 49 goals, Leicester's defence has proven equally formidable, especially at home. The Foxes haven't conceded at King Power Stadium in 463 minutes of league play dating to Loic Remy's goal for Chelsea in Leicester's 2-1 win Dec. 14, and Kasper Schmeichel has needed to make only five saves in a three-match win streak at home.
West Brom (9-8-10) may feel confident in their abilities to end that drought given their impressive form in the first half-hour of their 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace on Saturday. The much-maligned Saido Berahino capped his side's scoring in the 31st minute, then the Baggies conspired to nearly throw away the victory in the second 45 minutes with woeful defending.
The first 30 minutes was what manager Tony Pulis envisioned all season with his first-choice attacking trio of Berahino, Salomon Rondon and Stephane Sessegnon, but the manager lamented the damage Berahino's stance in wanting to leave for a top-four club all season has done to both the striker and the team.
"Saido has been a big problem for us all season," the manager conceded. "We wanted him to be fit, we wanted him to be playing, we wanted him to be showing everybody what he can do as an individual and we've not had that. It was lovely to see him score. More importantly, he looked sharper Saturday. We need him for the next 10, 11 games to play as well he did Saturday."
Pulis will be without midfielder and vice-captain Chris Brunt, who suffered a knee injury potentially serious enough to scuttle his European Championship hopes with Northern Ireland. Veteran defender Jonny Evans could be in line for a start, but Pulis said he won't make like Norwich and play five at the back.
West Brom have scored only nine goals outside The Hawthorns and put just one shot on frame in their last three road contests.
In the reverse fixture on Halloween, a brace by Mahrez seven minutes apart in the second half wiped out a first-half goal by Rondon, and Vardy added a third as Leicester City held on for a 3-2 victory at The Hawthorns. It was one of two victories for the Foxes when conceding first, and their 10 points in such instances trail only Tottenham's 17.