Leicester City-Aston Villa Preview
Leicester City have evolved from upstarts to feel-good story to legitimate Premier League contenders, and the Foxes now face the rising expectations of playing matches they could win to playing matches they should win.
One such instance comes Saturday, when they face last-place Aston Villa in the Midlands.
Any doubts over Leicester's title credentials were likely washed away with Wednesday's 1-0 victory at Tottenham Hotspur in a clash of top-four teams. Robert Huth's header in the 83rd minute off a corner from Christian Fuchs provided the winning margin and moved the Foxes level with Arsenal on 43 points atop the table.
The victory also pushed Leicester City (12-7-2) seven points clear of Spurs, who own the final Champions League spot, but no one is peeking that far down the road to all that could be if this epic run continues.
"It is only January, not May," manager Claudio Ranieri told Leicester's official website. "It is good but we must continue to work hard and keep our feet on the ground. This is a crazy league this year and we must continue.
"It is a fantastic win against a fantastic team. We are very happy but that's it. It's three points but we haven't achieved anything so far."
Huth's goal addressed one of the weaknesses that pundits and critics have long thought to be Leicester's Achilles' heel - that only Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez can provide the offence. While the duo have accounted for 28 of their 38 league goals, Vardy has gone five matches without a goal and Mahrez's barren run has stretched to four, and Wednesday marked the first time the Foxes won this season when neither have found the back of the net.
"Vardy and Mahrez are very important for us, and when you score without them that's good," Ranieri said. "We created a lot of chances, and it's not only with Mahrez and Vardy."
The other emerging storyline for Leicester is the tightening of a once-loose defence. Vardy's Premier League-record run of scoring in 11 straight matches hid a lot of the backline deficiencies, and their 25 goals shipped remain the most of any team in the table's top eight.
But Kasper Schmeichel notched his third consecutive clean sheet in league play and delivered a key save to preserve the scoreless deadlock when he got enough of a shot by Harry Kane from close range to force it off the crossbar and away from danger. One of the other clean sheets came against Manchester City, so the Foxes have shut out two of the division's top five offences in 16 days.
"We scored a goal and Kasper made a fantastic save from Harry Kane," Ranieri said. "It is the third match with a clean sheet so I am very glad."
What also would make "The Tinkerman" glad would be his Foxes taking care of business against Aston Villa (2-5-14), who ended a club-record 19-match winless drought Tuesday. They were gifted a 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace when Eagles keeper Wayne Hennessey fumbled Joleon Lescott's shot over the goal line in the 58th minute.
"It's a difficult time for us and we just needed to grind out a win," Lescott told Villa's official website. "It was very important and we knew how important it was, especially after performances and results recently."
The win finally and somewhat mercifully eased some of the pressure on manager Remi Garde, who had gone 10 matches across all competitions (0-5-5) without a victory since taking over the Midlands club. With friction still apparent with the fan base as the Villans face an enormous uphill slog to avoid their first relegation from the Premier League, the French manager is calling on his players to lead the charge.
"The fans had great feeling, and they had a great attitude too. If we want the supporters to have this attitude then we have to put the intensity of the game against Palace in again," Garde said.
"The fans follow the players. We have to be first."
Garde may have some reinforcements as Senegal international and Bordeaux defender Lamine Sane is close to signing with Villa. The Frenchman is also trying to pry compatriot Mathieu Debuchy from Arsenal via loan since the right back is eager to find playing time ahead of this summer's European Championship.
Leicester scrambled to a 3-2 victory in the reverse fixture in September as Mahrez set up goals by Ritchie De Laet and Marc Albrighton around a goal by Vardy in the final 18 minutes, with Albrighton netting the winner in the 89th minute. Jack Grealish and Carles Gil scored on either side of halftime to stake the Villans to a 2-0 advantage just past the hour mark.
Villa have won three on the bounce over Leicester at Villa Park since a 2-0 defeat Dec. 1, 2001.