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On Sunday, as Leicester City beat Sunderland 2-0, there was a sudden stab of realization. All season, the world has been waiting for Claudio Ranieri’s side to falter; now the title is so near that at the final whistle at the Stadium of Light it was possible for Leicester to have it wrapped up within a week. As it turned out, Tottenham then beat Manchester United later in the afternoon and so the soonest Leicester could be champion is April 24, when it meets Swansea City in its fourth-to-last game of the season. That’s still dauntingly close: the miracle could be complete by next weekend.
With five games to go, Tottenham trails Leicester by seven points. That’s not an insurmountable lead–Manchester City overhauled Manchester United’s eight-point lead with six games to go in 2011-12–but it is an imposing one. Tottenham needs Leicester City to drop points in at least three of its five remaining games–and that’s if Spurs win all five of their remaining matches, something made harder by the fact that each week until the final weekend, Tottenham plays after Leicester. The pressure will always be on Spurs not to slip up.
Spurs dealt well with that on Sunday, overcoming the news that Leicester had gone 10 points clear and a poor first half against Manchester United to win 3-0 with the sort of second-half performance that suggested an inner steel and determination. So if there is to be a comeback and a Leicester collapse, how might it unfold?
Given how any game is predictable at this stage of the season, when the focus of some sides can drift as others find a desperate inner will, Tottenham’s remaining five fixtures are benign enough. Away trips to Stoke are proverbially inhospitable but this Stoke seems to have run out of things for which to play and has won only one of its past five games.
West Brom at home will be awkward, because Tony Pulis sides always make it so, but it, too, has secured a mid-table berth and should be dismissed readily enough.
Chelsea away is rather trickier. After a long unbeaten run in the league, Guus Hiddink’s side finally succumbed at Swansea last week. It has nothing to play for, but no Chelsea side is ever going to lie down against Spurs.
There then comes a home game against a Southampton team with little to play for before a finale against Newcastle United at St James’ Park. Newcastle may already be down by then or may be scrapping for their lives, but either way it’s a game Spurs should win. Newcastle fans may recall that on the final day in 1995-96, it was a 1-1 draw against Tottenham at St James’ that guaranteed Kevin Keegan’s side would not claim the title (although Manchester United’s win at Middlesbrough rendered the game irrelevant anyway).
That suggests Tottenham can realistically target 15 points from its remaining five matches. Which means it needs Leicester to lose two and draw one of its remaining five games–or, given it has a goal difference that is nine better than Leicester’s, lose three if Spurs were, say, to draw at Chelsea.
For a side that has won its last five games without conceding a goal, that may seem unlikely, but Leicester is not sweeping all before it. These have been hard-fought wins. At Sunderland on Sunday, Leicester seemed short of ideas before a lapse from Younes Kaboul and brilliant pass from Danny Drinkwater released Jamie Vardy to score after 66 minutes. Even then it might have been a different story had Jack Rodwell not missed a glaring chance from eight yards.
On Sunday, Leicester faces West Ham United, which still has an outside chance of Champions League qualification. It was the last team to beat Spurs and has already won away at Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester City this season. This, perhaps, is the key game: if Leicester comes unscathed through that, then the way is clear.
A home game against Swansea shouldn’t release too many demons, despite the improvement under Francesco Guidolin–although the nature of a run-in is that even simple games can become traumatic as the closeness of the prize magnifies the pressure. Manchester United has been inconsistent all season, but it is still scrapping for top four, and the subsequent trip to Old Trafford is never going to be a procession.
Everton at home looks simple enough, and a possible FA Cup final may be a distraction for Roberto Martinez’s side, but it has lost only twice away all season. Chelsea away on the final day is more complicated: it’s not easy, but Chelsea fans would probably rather their former manager Ranieri won the title than their London rivals Tottenham.
Leicester has points in the bank, but a much harder run-in. Tottenham can only win its games and wait and hope. Leicester’s game with West Ham Sunday looks vital, not just for the points on the table, but for the tone it sets for the season’s final month.