Leicester City-Manchester City Preview
In a season where little has gone to plan in the Premier League, it somehow makes sense the hunters feel more pressure than the hunted.
Such is life for front-running Leicester City and closest pursuers Manchester City.
They square off in Saturday's crunch encounter at the Etihad Stadium, where the Foxes have a gilt-edged opportunity to gain space and the Citizens get the chance to peg them back and create a fittingly mad scramble among the top four.
Leicester City (14-8-2) maintained their first-place status with a 2-0 victory Tuesday over Liverpool courtesy a brace from Jamie Vardy. Each goal was the embodiment of the striker's relentless climb to the summit of English football and his team's fearlessness riding that track: the Leicester attack's kinetic design converging admittedly with a bit of luck.
Vardy's first, a sublime right-footed volley from 25 yards on the hour that dipped and flew over off-line Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet, will be replayed as one of the Premier League's goals of the season. It came after he chased Riyad Mahrez's long ball down the right side and settled under its bounce before letting fly - a testament to his thrill of the chase as the Foxes' leader of the line when pressing an opponent's defence.
"I'd seen him (Mignolet) all game and kept having a look up and he was always on the edge of his box," Vardy explained to the team's official website. "When I was put through by Riyad, I was wide and didn't have any support so I just hit it and hoped he was off his line. Luckily it nestled into the top corner.
"It's my best, no shadow of a doubt. I just hope there's more of them to come."
His second, a classic poacher's goal from close range after a deflected shot from outside the box by Shinji Okazaki, showcased Vardy's striker instincts honed traversing each level of England's football pyramid. He raced onto the ball's path and clinically finished past Mignolet before celebrating his league-best 18th goal with teammates and a raucous King Power Stadium.
It lifted the Foxes, unbeaten in six (3-3-0) in league play with two wins on the spin, to 50 points and once more showed the big-name teams and the big-spending clubs - and anyone else who dares doubt them - they will not go gently into that good night.
The players appear immune to pressure and willing to embrace this thrill-a-minute ride that improbably gathers more momentum each passing match.
"It's not a coincidence we're top of the table," midfielder Danny Drinkwater said after Leicester's fifth clean sheet in six league contests. "This is team spirit at its highest. We won't stop believing.
"We're staying on the ground but if we carry on the way we are, then why not have the belief (to win the league)? It would go down in history surely."
These Foxes are frisky because their mastermind - Claudio Ranieri - continues to masterfully deflect and absorb all the pressure as it grows week after week and victory after victory. Much like his players, "The Tinkerman" was in top form at his news conference Thursday, noting "Manchester (City) are built to win the title, to win the Champions League."
When further pressed on who would win the Premier League, Ranieri chuckled and said with a smile: "The others."
And right now, Manchester City (14-5-5) are first among those others, stalking Leicester with a veteran savvy gleaned from winning recent title races over the Manchester Uniteds, Chelseas, et al.
Any thought of the long-expected announcement Pep Guardiola will be installed as City coach next season being a distraction quickly evaporated with Tuesday's business-like 1-0 victory at Sunderland, thanks to Sergio Aguero's goal in the 16th minute that kept them three points behind the Foxes.
Unbeaten in their last seven league matches (4-3-0), City knowing this is Manuel Pellegrini's long farewell is another galvanising factor in their bid for a third Premier League title in five seasons. Sending the Chilean off in style - Pellegrini has won 65 of 100 league matches since taking over in 2013 - is a high priority as they attempt to lift a second Barclay's trophy in his three seasons.
"The fans think the world of him, the players think the world of him," goalkeeper Joe Hart said. "We really enjoy playing under Manuel. He has been a top manager for us. ... So we are going to look to give him the best send-off, what he deserves."
As Vardy has rightfully earned his accolades in a breakthrough season that won't unofficially end until England competes in the European Championship this summer in France, his Manchester City counterpart is also quite formidable in the final third. Aguero moves with a surgeon's incisiveness and equal work rate, contributing to a consistent scoring rate throughout his five seasons donning the light-blue kit.
The Argentina international has netted six times during a four-match goal-scoring streak in all competitions and has flipped the switch since the calendar flipped to 2016 with eight in as many matches. Despite playing just 17 league contests due to injuries, the man they call "Kun" has 13 goals - tied for fifth with Mahrez - and still has designs on the Premier League's Golden Boot for a second straight season.
Leicester have taken an impressive 25 points from their road matches, most in the league, and scored 23 goals. Man City have proven equally resolute at Etihad Stadium by taking 28 points while outscoring opponents 33-12.
Manchester City's 2-0 win last season was their first in four top-flight home matches (1-0-3) over Leicester City.
The teams battled to a scoreless draw in the reverse fixture Dec. 29, a cagey match in which Ranieri may have afforded Man City too much respect playing Vardy as Leicester's lone striker before introducing Leonardo Ulloa in the 67th minute. Aguero felt he had a legitimate penalty claim after being felled by Gokhan Inler in the second half, but referee Craig Pawson thought otherwise.
City will again be without talisman Vincent Kompany, though the pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Martin Demichelis has proven effective in central defence. What may hurt City more is the absence of injured winger Kevin De Bruyne. Pellegrini, though, does not lack for options as he can choose among Jesus Navas, David Silva, Raheem Sterling, Fabian Delph, Fernandinho and Kelechi Iheanacho to join Aguero and Yaya Toure in the starting XI.
Given his recent form, Okazaki replacing Inler looks to be the only change to Leicester's starting XI from the reverse fixture.
"It's an open match because they want to win to achieve us. We want to win to go away and then it's an open match," Ranieri said. "Maybe it's an open match and at the end it's a draw. You never know with football."