Liverpool-Leicester City Preview
All throughout their first gauntlet of elite competition, many expected Leicester City to fade from their breathtaking ascendancy to the top of the table.
Instead, they survived.
Should they thrive on this smaller yet more intense run against top-level teams, the Premier League title just may be for the taking for the Foxes.
Leicester City begin a three-game crunch Tuesday hosting a Liverpool side still resembling a Jekyll-and-Hyde outfit from match to match.
The schedule read like a list of heavyweights from Thanksgiving to the end of 2015 for the Foxes: Home to Manchester United and reigning champions Chelsea around a contest at Swansea City, followed by consecutive Merseyside matches at Everton and Liverpool and capped with a home clash versus title contenders Manchester City. Yes, Jamie Vardy was the talk of the town, but surely these marquee clubs would furnish a measuring stick too tall for Leicester City.
But Claudio Ranieri's team persevered, finishing with three victories, two draws and one defeat, serving notice the Foxes were no longer the cute feel-good story of the top flight, but rather, the outliers who could end the Big Four's sharing of the season-ending trophy.
Even Leicester's 2-0 reversal at home to Tottenham Hotspur in a third-round replay of the FA Cup on Jan. 20 may prove advantageous because the Foxes (13-8-2) have only the Premier League title to chase, while pursuers Manchester City are hunting four trophies and top-four sides Arsenal and Spurs both still toil in European and domestic competitions.
The reality of that chase will be further fleshed out in a fortnight's span with Leicester City at Manchester City and Arsenal after hosting Liverpool. Both the Citizens and Gunners are three points off the Foxes' trail and preparing for a busy February that includes Champions League knockout round matches and FA Cup tilts. In the case of Man City, they also face Liverpool in the League Cup final at Wembley on Feb. 28.
"We've got three games against big teams and they are important," defender Christian Fuchs told Leicester's official website. "We want to win against Liverpool and the defeat to Arsenal (in September) was one of our worst games.
"We are a really good team on the field and we will try to keep winning. People writing us off isn't a topic for us. We focus on our work and do it well."
Leicester was able to watch the FA Cup action last weekend and are unbeaten in five (2-3-0) in league play - conceding just once in that span - after a 3-0 romp past Stoke City on Jan. 23. Danny Drinkwater, who has quietly earned plaudits as the midfield engine while Vardy and Riyad Mahrez garner the goal-scoring glory, stepped into the offensive spotlight with a late first-half goal and assisted on a second-half tally by Vardy.
"He's brilliant. He's got great vision for a pass and he keeps us ticking," sang Vardy in praise of Drinkwater. "He's the puppet master - he tries to get everyone going and pulls all the strings. It's as simple as that."
Though King Power Stadium was quiet over the weekend, the front office has been active in trying to get Vardy help for the stretch run before the transfer window closes. Leicester were rebuffed in their bid to land Sampdoria striker Eder before he signed with Inter Milan, but they are reportedly nearing a deal to acquire Loic Remy, who has been eager to step out of Diego Costa's shadow at Chelsea and get consistent playing time.
The Foxes previously opened their purse strings to acquire midfielders Demarai Gray and Daniel Amartey.
Nothing has come easy for Liverpool (9-7-7), who are eight points adrift of fourth-place Tottenham and three back of fifth-place Manchester United. Jurgen Klopp has seen his team ebb and flow seemingly every 90 minutes, and a Reds team still dealing with a spate of injuries were given the inconvenience of another FA Cup replay following Saturday's nil-nil draw at home versus West Ham United in the fourth round.
Tuesday will mark the end of a draining stretch of four matches in 10 days for Liverpool that started with a rollicking 5-4 victory at Norwich City on Jan. 23 before advancing to the League Cup final on penalties after a 120-minute grind versus Stoke City on Tuesday. Klopp completely overturned his squad save keeper Simon Mingolet on Saturday, but no verdict was to be had.
Still, the irrepressible German took positives from a youth-laden side that carved out chances against West Ham without being rewarded in the final third - a season-long problem that has plagued all of the Reds.
"We defended well and had a good structure in the game. We made chances and played bravely, that was really good," Klopp said. "At the end, it's a draw with bigger chances for us I think. This young team did really well.
"We could rest the team that played against Stoke. They had today off and that's good, so we will again have fresh legs against Leicester. That's the good news."
Liverpool are still trying to land reinforcements before the transfer window closes, but they don't appear likely to acquire their highest-profile target - Alex Teixeira - with Shakhtar Donetsk demanding a high price for the talented midfielder.
Christian Benteke, who came on as a substitute for the injured Divock Origi, provided the only goal in the reverse fixture on Boxing Day at Anfield just after the hour mark. Liverpool held possession for 61 percent of the match and outshot Leicester 25-7, improving to 5-2-0 in the top flight against the Foxes since a 2-0 loss in 2001.