Leicester City-Sunderland Preview
For most of the season, everyone has been waiting for the pressure to be too much to bear for Leicester City during their historic run to the Premier League title.
Starting Sunday at the Stadium of Light versus Sunderland, however, it will be the Foxes who can turn the screws on the closest pursuers and potentially clinch a place in next season's Champions League.
Leicester City (20-9-3) extended their advantage atop the league over Tottenham Hotspur to seven points last Sunday, notching their fourth consecutive 1-0 victory by beating a game Southampton side at King Power Stadium.
The Foxes had some rub of the green in this match, as an apparent handball by Danny Simpson in the penalty area in the first half went uncalled by referee Michael Oliver, but their defence also rose to the occasion as goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel extended his shutout streak to 400 minutes and four full matches.
"We defend as a team and we are tough to break down. They are an absolute privilege to play behind, these boys. They throw their bodies in the way of everything and give us the best opportunity to go and win games," Schmeichel told the club's official website after matching Manchester City's Joe Hart with a league-leading 13th clean sheet.
"If we start looking ahead to after Sunderland this Sunday we are not going to put our full focus on Sunderland, which we need to do," the keeper added. "That's a tough, tough game. It's just the whole mentality of taking one game as it comes. We are under no pressure at all. This is great."
That pressure, which has been on Leicester's shoulders of reacting to results for most of the term, now shifts onto Tottenham's. The Foxes - who could secure a Champions League berth with Manchester United and West Ham United losses - play all six of their final matches before Spurs kick off, meaning the London side could be trailing Leicester by 10 points if the Foxes leave the North East with a victory prior to their match against Manchester United later Sunday.
Yet the pressure everyone professed Leicester City to be under following their meteoric rise dissipated once they reached 40 points if one was to believe manager Claudio Ranieri.
Earlier this week in a first-person article for The Players' Tribune website - which also served as Leicester City's introduction to American soccer fans - Ranieri recounted that the chairman said, "'Claudio, this is a very important year for the club. It is very important for us to stay in the Premier League. We have to stay safe.' ... Forty points. That was the goal. That was the total we needed to stay in the first division, to give our fans another season of Premier League football.
"Back then, I did not dream that I would open the paper on April 4 and see Leicester City at the top of the table with 69 points. Last year on this same day, the club was at the bottom of the table. Unbelievable."
As Leicester continue their chase of glory, Sunderland (6-9-16) are once more in a fight for their Premier League lives. The Black Cats have drawn their last four matches, keeping themselves in touching distance to safety, but their North East neighbours Newcastle United dealt Sunderland's hopes a crippling blow last weekend by losing to Norwich City, who moved four points clear of manager Sam Allardyce's team above the drop.
Last Saturday's scoreless draw versus West Bromwich Albion felt more like two points lost given Sunderland's effort. They had a stoppage-time goal by Dame N'Doye chalked off for offsides and seven shots on frame - three of which required quality saves from Baggies keeper Ben Foster - while not conceding any to the Baggies.
Sunderland will get their crack at Norwich next weekend at Carrow Road in what will be a six-point belter, but right now striker Jermain Defoe has challenged his teammates to put forth an effort similar to what they produced against the Baggies in hopes of getting three desperately needed points.
"The reality is that we're in a similar position to last season and once again we need to get out of it," he told Sunderland's official website. "At Southampton we conceded late on, against Newcastle we couldn't hold on and those four points are just an example of what could have been a lot more.
"Last weekend we had so many chances and usually at least one hits the back of the net. ... It was frustrating but if we keep performing in a similar way our luck will change and we will pick up the points we need."
Sunderland have taken points in five of their last six league home matches (2-3-1), but last weekend's draw was their first clean sheet at the Stadium of Light in eight contests.
The reverse fixture offered the first clues of Leicester's stunning rise and the uncelebrated personnel that would get them here as they scored three times inside the first 25 minutes en route to a 4-2 victory to open the season.
Jamie Vardy scored on 11 minutes and Riyad Mahrez collected two goals seven minutes apart to quickly salt away three points. N'Golo Kante, then still proving himself in a substitute role, came on for the unheralded Vardy in the 82nd. The central midfielder has since debuted for the France senior squad with a legitimate shot at making Didier Deschamps' side for the European Championship.
Defoe and Steven Fletcher had goals for the Black Cats around one from Marc Albrighton, who also had two assists for Leicester. The Foxes, who are 4-3-1 in the last eight top-flight matches between the teams, are winless in five all-time Premier League contests (0-3-2) at the Stadium of Light, having scored only one goal and recording three scoreless stalemates.