Leicester do not need to prove themselves anymore they already have, and a slimline fixture list could help Claudio Ranieris super-focused side land the biggest prize
Manchester United put in a decent performance for once at home against Stoke City, and in the press room after the match the in-house television channel was naturally full of it. We are back to our best, was the slightly premature MUTV message, while up in Sunderland the noisy neighbours had only managed to scrape a win by a single aim.
Everyone laughed at that, believing it was routine pro-United, anti-City bias, yet blow me when we all got home and watched Match of the Day on catch-up it was apparent Manchester City had only rubbed a win. But for some Joe Hart heroics in aim Sunderland would have had at least a share of the points, and as Sam Allardyce said afterwards with any sort of finishing the relegation strugglers might have taken a giant stride upwards.
The other thing that was apparent from MotD highlightings well, more obvious actually was that Leicester City are still not having any problems in the complete department and are still on course for the shock of the millennium development goals. Jamie Vardy is now a competitor to win aim of the season as well as player of the year, the Foxes have become the first Premier League team to hit 50 points, a five-point gap has been opened on Tottenham Hotspur and Arsenal and their nearest challengers, Manchester City, lie in wait at the Etihad on Saturday.
Yes, of course, said Claudio Ranieri, who perhaps required no reminding that the next two fixtures against City and Arsenal could define Leicesters title challenge. But we are in good condition and under no pressure. The next two games will not define Leicesters season Ranieri, Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and a strong supporting cast have already done that but if last seasons relegation escapees are still top by shut of play on Valentines Day all the questions along the lines of can they do it? will have to stop.
Because they will be doing it. Valentines Day, by the way, could have a major influence on the way the title and the four largest work up. While Leicester travel to the Emirates, for what one imagines might be little reward given the way Arsenal engraved them open to win 5-2 at the King Power back in September, Manchester City entertain Spurs so that all the present top four are in action against one another on the same Sunday.
But first comes Saturdays aperitif at the Etihad. The December meeting between the clubs was goalless and inconclusive, with Leicester glad of a phase after suffering only the second defeat of their season at Liverpool the week before. This time practically everything is at stake, and though both directors would doubtless pooh-pooh the idea that titles can be decided in February, it should certainly provide a pointer as to who might finish on top.
Leicester seem to be returning to peak form after a slight dip in effectiveness, represented by Mahrez performing at his best again after a quiet January. They are now out of the beakers as well as out of Europe not that they were ever in Europe and, as Jurgen Klopp so succinctly remarked, their task now is simply to play a match a week while all their major adversaries tie themselves in knots with fixture pile-ups.
Manchester City may well view their next two games against Leicester and Spurs, do try to keep up as the last before their fixture programme becomes hectic. They have the small matter of an FA Cup tie at Chelsea on 20 February, followed by a trip-up to Dynamo Kyiv in the Champions League and then the Capital One Cup final against Liverpool at the end of the month.
And they have just announced a managerial change , not exactly an unexpected one but a development that has been known to impact adversely on squads concentration and outcomes in the past, especially as it has been largely suggested that when Pep Guardiola takes over he will have a significant amount of money to spend on new players. If the City squad all love Manuel Pellegrini as much as they say they do, the most desirable outcome would clearly be to win the title and perhaps another pot or two and dedicate the silverware to the outgoing manager.
With the best of intentions, that is what the City squad will probably try to do, but it is easier said than done. Guess back to when Sir Alex Ferguson said he was bowing out at United( several seasons before he actually did) then had to change his schemes about retirement because his squads attempt to win every game in his honor went so spectacularly awry.
An outgoing director , no matter how popular and successful, subtly changes the normal dynamic. An incoming one with money to expend does the same. Manchester City are not going to turn into a team of also-rans overnight; it is possible in fact that Pellegrini went public with the Guardiola news because he feared rumors and conjecture was already demonstrating a distraction, but MotD reckoned his squad was not at its best on Wearside on Tuesday night and it could turn out that City are below par again at the weekend.
Whereas the one thing Leicester have never been this season is below par. They have been fabulously above par, if that is not a golfing contradiction, punching above their weight from day one and using their comparatively streamlined fixture programme to ensure they perform at their best for 90 minutes when a league game comes along.
They are not so good as to go into Saturdays game as favourites, but City will have to be at their best to beat them, especially if Vardy and Mahrez get in among the still somewhat ponderous home defense. That is a huge compliment to Ranieri and his players, but only one of dozens they have thoroughly deserved all season. Regardless of the result at the Etihad, Leicester seem nailed on for a Champions League place whether they win the title or not.
Danny Murphy said that on MotD and he is probably right, yet Leicester would do well to shut their ears to such talk and concentrate on the main award, in case they subconsciously begin to accept that finishing second or third would still be an outstanding achievement. It would, of course, but the outstanding achievement to objective all outstanding achievements is still on offer. Ranieri is smart enough to know that, and so are his players. Klopp sounded like “hes having” been mugged on Tuesday night, which is exactly the effect a squad like Leicester should be aiming for.
They are tough customers, you cannot argue with their approach, and at the moment no one is doing so. Manchester City, Spurs and Arsenal all have stronger squads, but Leicester have proved brazenly effective at 11 v 11 contests over 90 minutes. There is still a way to go, but if titles were won on verve and trust the bookies would probably be paying out already.
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