February 08, 2015

With all the love Leicester City have received during their unlikely and meteoric rise to the top of the Premier League, it seems fitting their Valentine's Day opponent are Arsenal - jilted and forlorn for more than a decade as each of their annual challenges to bring the trophy to London have ended in heartbreak.

Leicester (15-8-2) head to the Emirates Stadium on Sunday a win from sweeping a treble of high-profile opponents and distancing themselves eight points from one of their top title adversaries.

After avenging one of their two losses Feb. 2 by beating Liverpool 2-0 on a brace by Jamie Vardy, the Foxes ruthlessly ran Manchester City off the Etihad pitch last Saturday in a deserved 3-1 victory, getting an unlikely brace from defender Robert Huth off two set pieces on either side of a brilliant strike from winger Riyad Mahrez.

"It is very romantic and I understand the whole country (being behind them)," Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger mused. "That is human. It is important to know that with quality work, quality scouting and quality management you can have great results.

"In the last week they showed they have solid potential to win the league, with two positive results against Liverpool and Manchester City away."

Leicester are five points clear of both Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal (14-6-5), and the win dumped Manchester City to fourth, six points off their trail. While emphatically validating their title credentials to the last holdouts among the skeptics, the win furthered the affinity most of England and neutral football fans worldwide have with these Foxes.

"It's a very interesting Premier League so far. We want to fight to maintain this level," manager Claudio Ranieri said at his pre-match news conference. "It's interesting, it's fantastic. Why? Because of what happened. It's a great story. Why the pressure? There's no pressure, just enjoy.

"We continue to dream with our fans and we want to continue to dream. Nobody wake us up please."

It really is all there for the taking for Leicester City, whose hard-charging style is greatly aided by the fact they're chasing only the Premier League title. Their schedule - lighter than all the contenders who are chasing domestic and European trophies around league play - after next week's break also furthers their title ambitions with very winnable home contests against Norwich City and West Bromwich Albion.

And on "Showdown Sunday" in which fellow top-four teams Spurs and Manchester City square off at the Etihad, the Foxes are presented this gilt-edged opportunity to avenge their other defeat, a 5-2 setback at King Power Stadium on Sept. 26.

As Ranieri and Wenger debated through the media who are the favourites, the pressure to deliver a victory here weighs heavier on Arsenal, again chasing their first title since "The Invincibles" lifted the trophy in 2004.

The very consistency Wenger has provided with top-four finishes every year since is also the source of maddeningly unfulfilled expectations for Gunners supporters. Arsenal are always good - they're sometimes very good - and yet not good enough to overtake Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City in any one of those 12 years.

So seeing Leicester City, a side teetering on the brink of relegation a mere 12 months ago, only adds to their angst with an added pang of jealousy.

Some of that was relieved with last weekend's 2-0 victory at Bournemouth, where Mesut Ozil and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain scored 88 seconds apart. The Gunners ended a four-match winless spell in the league, and Ozil's marker in the 23rd minute ended a goalless drought of 328 minutes dating to a 55th-minute Olivier Giroud goal in a 3-3 draw at Liverpool on Jan. 13.

Thinking back to the Foxes, the flattering scoreline in Arsenal's deserved September victory hides how perilously balanced the match was. The relentless Vardy terrorised the Gunners backline in the first 20 minutes as he hit the woodwork in the 10th, scored in the 13th to stake the Foxes to an early lead and would have doubled it in the 18th had his header not caromed off the crossbar.

Vardy's ever-so-slight misplacement swung the contest to Arsenal's favour. The Gunners raced on the counter, capped by Santi Carzola's perfectly threaded through ball by two defenders that Theo Walcott ran onto before narrowly beating Kasper Schmeichel. The low shot inside the right post culminated that end-to-end equalising sequence and sparked Arsenal.

The frenetic pace - neither team sat back and defended - resulted in 19 of the combined 42 shots being placed on target. It also allowed Alexis Sanchez to run rampant, and with Mesut Ozil commanding the midfield, the industrious Chilean took full advantage by netting the next three goals.

"The first game we played against them at Leicester was a very open game and it is true that their strength is to be very quick in transition from defence to offence," Wenger said. "But we have to nullify their pace and attacking potential. We want to dominate the game, have the ball and be dangerous."

Leicester have since addressed those issues on defence, where Danny Simpson and Christian Fuchs have stabilised the back four since replacing Ritchie De Laet and Jeff Schlupp. For all of Vardy and Mahrez's goal-scoring exploits, the Foxes have conceded only two goals during their current seven-match (4-3-0) unbeaten run and 13 in 18 league matches since losing to Arsenal.

Similar to how he helped short-circuit Manchester City last weekend, midfielder N'Golo Kante could be the fulcrum in this match as he leads the charge to contain Ozil, the Premier League's top playmaker with 16 assists.

"The way we stop Mesut Ozil is as a team," Kante insisted. "I played against him in the first game and I saw then that he was a very good player, but we are a team against Arsenal and it's the whole team - not just Ozil."

Leicester's best will be needed to end an 18-match winless spell (0-6-12) against Arsenal in league play and record their first Premier League victory in 10 tries on the Gunners' ground. The Foxes have been outscored 25-5 in losing eight on the bounce at Arsenal.

In the wake of last weekend's stunningly large fan walkout at Anfield that forced Liverpool's ownership group to reverse course on a proposed hike in ticket prices, Leicester's traveling supporters plan to not take their seats for the first five minutes in protest to this match being moved back a day at late notice to accommodate Sky Sports.

The protest is being backed by Arsenal's main supporters group.

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