Saturday, February 06, 2016

Leicester City Emerge as Title Favorites (3-1 at City)

Leicester City traveled to the Etihad with a chance to put six points between themselves and title favorites Man City. They had won their last two games convincingly, 3-0 over Stoke and 2-0 over Liverpool, after a mixed run that included losses to Liverpool in the league and Tottenham in the FA Cup, alongside draws with City, Bournemouth and Aston Villa. Meanwhile, City had gone undefeated since their loss to Arsenal before Christmas.

Leicester City took the game by the scruff of the neck early, with Huth scoring from a Mahrez free kick before three minutes had passed. City had a penalty claim as the first half neared completion, but I believe Anthony Taylor was right to give the free kick just outside the box instead. Soon after the restart, another wonderful counter attack culminated in Mahrez juking Otamendi, cutting inside and then finishing crisply with his weaker right foot past Hart (48’). Schmeichel then had a great save on 54 minutes that could have cut the lead in half before Huth essentially sealed the three points with a spectacular looping header to the far post (60’) to make the lead 3-0. Aguero, of course, scored late (87’) with a powerful header across goal to give City a sniff of a comeback, but that was all they could muster and it finished 3-0.

Three thoughts on the game:
1. Giant Killers: Among the most impressive things about Leicester as they build this lead at the top is their performance against the other top teams. While they lost to Tottenham in the FA Cup (a blessing in disguise), they beat them 1-0 at White Hart Lane. After losing 1-0 to Liverpool at Anfield on Boxing Day, they returned the favor with a 2-0 win at home. And after stumbling to a 0-0 draw with City at home, they go to the Etihad and absolutely crush City 3-1. Next up is Arsenal, who did beat them 5-2 at the King Power early in the season. Since then, though, Leicester have done an impressive job of shoring up their defense. Since the 1-0 loss to Liverpool, in fact, they have five clean sheets and have only conceded more than a goal in the two FA Cup matches against Tottenham. Given their confidence, finishing touch and ability to show up consistently for their biggest games, it appears time to admit this team is on track to win the title. There is still a long way to go, of course, and next week’s game with Arsenal will go a long way in answer their remaining doubters, but even a draw would mean a five-point lead over the Gunners and six over City. They have only lost twice all season, have conceded only 27 goals and already have 15 wins to their name. So the team that was struggling to avoid relegation last season at the turn of 2015, now stands 13 games from the most improbable title in the history of English football. Extraordinary!

2. Hunger vs. Money: looking across the pitch, it was impossible not to consider the gulf in salary and transfer fees between the two teams. Robert Huth and Wes Morgan cost a combined 4 million pounds vs. Otamendi (32m) and Demichelles (3.5m). Mahrez for 750k, Okazaki for 7m and Vardy for a cool million pounds versus Sterling for 44m, Aguero for 38m and Bony sitting on the bench for 28m. Fernandinho cost 30m, Silva 25m and Yaya Toure 24m vs. the impressive Kante at 5.6m, Albrighton for free and Drinkwater for an undisclosed, but one assumes quite marginal, fee. In total, Leicester City’s squad cost approximately 55 million over the 2015-16 season while City’s outlay was over 250m. So how does a team of journeyman and young stars beat seasoned veterans considered among the best in the world at their positions – sometimes it’s luck, an off-night for those stars or an outstanding performance by the underdogs. In this case, it appeared hunger was the essential ingredient that led Leicester City to the win. They were quicker to balls, hungrier in the box (as CB Huth scored two of their three goals, from free kicks), and showed more passion and verve throughout most of the encounter. This has arguably been City’s problem on and off since they rose to the top of the Premier League – shutting off and then assuming their talent alone can win them games. That has worked for their two title-winning seasons, but has left them exposed to losses like this and the one against Arsenal in December and might just cost them a third title in five years.

3. Vardy/Mahrez Dynamic Duo: Vardy did not score in the game today, even as he was all over the pitch, but he caused City problems in a number of other ways. After the opening goal, he beat Demichelles to the byline and got in an excellent cross just beyond the reach of Okazaki. He led the team on the counter on several occasions and even pressed up the pitch, causing havoc for City in their own half on several instances across the match. Mahrez was even more central to the victory, appearing to be getting back to his best, after two missed penalties in successive games cost them four points. It was his clever free kick from just outside the box that freed Huth for the opener, his brilliant zigzagging run that produced the second and he even chipped in with a key clearance in their own box as well. The two are an among the most exciting duos in the league at the moment and making it difficult for any team that faces them, home or away. But this is a team that is impressive from top to bottom, with everyone chipping in from week to week. Mahrez had the first assist, but Fuchs (free transfer) and Kante were providers for the other two goals, against scored by their centre back. If Leicester are to win the title, these trends must continue and Vardy and Mahrez probably can’t afford any further drop-offs in form, as seemed to happen around the Christmas season. As things stand now, they are 13 games away from one of the greatest Cinderella stories in the history of sports.

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