Leicester City-Everton Preview
In the midst of what manager Claudio Ranieri feels is a dream season, the notion of Leicester City as a serious Premier League title contender is becoming more of a reality.
Everton boss Roberto Martinez is a believer.
Looking to extend their unbeaten streak to 10, the league-leading Foxes try again to record their initial victory at Goodison Park on Saturday in the first of back-to-back weekends on Merseyside.
"It's magical," Ranieri said after Monday's 2-1 home triumph over dysfunctional Chelsea. "I don't want to wake up."
After flirting with relegation last season, it's no dream that Leicester (10-5-1) hold a two-point lead over second-place Arsenal in the table. A victory Saturday and the Foxes would have history on their side. In the past five seasons, four of the clubs that led at Christmas went on to win the league title.
Leicester, 7-2-0 since losing 5-2 at home to Arsenal on Sept. 26, continue to remain cautiously optimistic as they are 2-1-0 in a daunting stretch of schedule that concludes with a Boxing Day contest at Liverpool and a quick turnaround to face fellow title contenders Manchester City at home.
"I think we've taken it in our stride well," midfielder Andy King told the club's official website. "From an outside point of view I guess it's been a bit more of an upwards step, but us as players, we're used to doing media and we're taking it in our stride.
"We're just concentrating on our football really. We're enjoying being top of the league and long may that continue."
Ranieri will have to make at least three changes to his starting lineup, including two on the backline as Robert Huth must sit due to a yellow-card accumulation and Jeffrey Schlupp is sidelined at least six weeks with a hamstring injury.
Midfielder Danny Drinkwater also is expected to miss out due to a hamstring issue.
One league win shy of matching their total from last season, the Foxes are a club-record 7-4-0 away from home since losing at Tottenham on March 21. However, they're 0-7-2 all-time at Everton (5-8-3) and have beaten the Toffees once in 18 overall league meetings.
"Leicester deserve to be at the top of the league," Martinez said. "We'll have to be at our best ... But we look forward to playing the best in the league at Goodison."
The Toffees are unbeaten in the last 11 overall meetings with Leicester, but have only won twice during that stretch and drawn the last three. Though Everton have not lost in their last six league matches (2-4-0), they've drawn three in a row including the last two at 1-all.
"It's disappointing at the amount of points we've dropped in the last three games but we've played very, very consistent in the last six," Martinez said.
The Toffees have yielded eight goals in those six and must be at their best to contain the top-flight's most dynamic scoring duo. Premier League goal leader Jamie Vardy (15) and Riyad Mahrez (11) have combined for all but eight of the Foxes' goals.
One week after Vardy's record 11-match goal streak ended, he opened the scoring in the 34th minute against Chelsea. Mahrez added his fourth in two games 14 minutes later.
"Everyone is delighted for them, and for the team," King added. "I think they'll be the first to admit that they probably couldn't do it without the players around them but those two in particular are having outstanding seasons and ones they probably couldn't have believed at the start."
Vardy, who had five goals during his first Premier League campaign last season, earned an assist during a 2-all draw at Goodison in February.
Everton's Romelu Lukaku also had an assist in that match but has made his mark as a finisher while chasing Vardy with 12 league goals this term. The Belgian international, who extended his goal streak to six league matches and seven over all competitions in a 1-1 finish at Norwich City last Saturday, is relishing the challenge of facing English football's man of the moment.
"Credit to him, he's done great and is having a really good season," Lukaku said of Vardy to Everton's official website. "As a striker you always want to score goals and on a personal level you always want to be in that number one spot in the scoring charts.
"So he is enjoying that moment I'm sure but for me, is if I score and we win, that's good enough for me!"