LEICESTER CITY IS LEGIT
Perhaps the biggest lesson this weekend is something we’ve been ignoring for a while. Guys, Leicester City is legit. They are the favorites to win the Premier League title.
After rolling into the Etihad Stadium and dispatching title rivals Manchester City with ease on Saturday, Claudio Ranieri is refusing to admit the Foxes are the front-runners. Well, Claudio, you are. With a five-point lead at the top and a trip to Arsenal coming up next Sunday (Watch live, 7 a.m. ET on NBCSN and online via Live Extra) this is all getting rather serious.
Leicester isn’t doing anything they haven’t done all season long. They made the most of set pieces with Robert Huth scoring from two of them and Riyad Mahrez‘s superb goal sandwiched in-between Huth’s strikes personified the simplistic brilliance of Ranieri’s tactics. Winning the ball back in midfield, a quick ball out to N'Golo Kante saw him thread it to Mahrez 30-yards up field and the Algerian wizard danced his way past Nicolas Otamendi and gave Joe Hart the eyes. Direct and at the heart of Man City, Leicester’s tactics are tearing teams apart consistently and the most impressive thing about their recent performances is their defensive solidity.
Sure, they sat back a little deeper than they would’ve liked against Man City but they’re able to rely on clipping one long ball in-behind for Jamie Vardy or Shinji Okazaki to collect. Vardy didn’t score on Saturday but Hart denied him twice when clean through and he rifled another into the side-netting. No matter, after the landmark win the leading scorer in the PL penned a new contract which ties him to Leicester until 2019.
Over the past four days Leicester has dispatched Liverpool 2-0 and Man City 3-1. Now, perhaps for the first time this season, everybody expects them to go to Arsenal and seal a remarkable win that could leave their biggest rivals for the title eight points in their wake. How the Foxes deal with this new pressure remains to be seen. They are no longer expected to fail. Everyone expects them to maintain this form and now clinch the title. Handling those expectations and staying focused will now be the biggest test yet for Ranieri’s remarkable squad. If they do hold on and clinch the title, there’s no doubt this will be the most surprising moment in PL history. And maybe soccer history.
MAN UNITED IMPROVING BUT TOP FOUR HOPES FADING
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Louis Van Gaal reacted angrily when asked about speculation regarding his Manchester United future and if the teams improved performance will help his own cause.
The Dutchman, 64, has reason to be pleased with United’s offensive display at Chelsea as Jesse Lingard‘s magical turn, spin and strike had them 1-0 up heading into stoppage time. Then, Diego Costa struck and grabbed Chelsea a point to stretch their unbeaten run to 10 games since Jose Mourinho was fired.
The manner in which United conceded irritated Van Gaal as his side have slipped six points off the top four with just 13 games going.
“That’s why I am frustrated and my players are frustrated. When you are playing like we have played today and you are not making the gap smaller. You can say its misfortune but it’s not the first time that is overcoming us,” Van Gaal said. “For example Newcastle United scored in extra time. We have to do that better, improve in that way. I am happy with the performance. It was not a boring match so for the third time in the row it was sparkling. I hope to get the support of the media this week.”
Van Gaal’s offense, unlike it has for most of this season, looked sharp with Wayne Rooney going close three times and Thibaut Courtois denying the brilliant Anthony Martial and Lingard but it was the same old story. United don’t score enough goals to be able to make these defensive mistakes and still grab three points. They need to buck this trend, and fast, if their fading top four hopes are to become reality.
NORTH LONDON RISING
So, we’ve spoken about Leicester. Now, let’s look at the two teams chasing them: Arsenal and Tottenham Hotspur. Of course, Man City is still in the mix in fourth place on 47 points but the north London duo of Arsenal and Spurs are, right now, seeming to be the firm challengers to the Foxes. Both sit on 48 points and both won this weekend.
“I believe in my players, I believe in my squad. We will see. It is difficult to guess what will happen in the future,” Pochettino said. “In football belief is the most important word. If we believe, anything can happen. I believe in my squad and they believe too in the way we play. This synergy is very important for the future. You can see in their eyes, the feeling, the energy that they believe. But it is better not to speak too much, only show, work hard.”
Arsenal beat Bournemouth 2-0, their first victory in five PL games, and the Gunners are now back on track ahead of Leicester’s visit to the Emirates next Sunday. A win in that game is a must if both Arsenal and Spurs are to claw back ground on the Foxes. Another game which could be even bigger in the run-in is March 5 at White Hart Lane. Spurs host Arsenal in just under a month and by then it could be a straight two-horse race between the bitter rivals for the Premier League title.
As for the bigger picture, both Spurs and Arsenal are still in Europe and the FA Cup which could complicate their title charge. Arsenal, in particular, face a pivotal 10-day period in February which will define their season. The fixture list reads: Feb. 14, Leicester at home in the Premier League. Feb. 20, Hull at home in the FA Cup. Feb. 23, Barcelona at home in the UEFA Champions League last 16 first leg. Arsene Wenger‘s men usually hit full stride in the final months of the season but usually their situation is much worse than this. Let’s see if the perennial kick-starters can stretch their legs and stride to success in multiple competitions but, most importantly, beat their north London rivals to the PL title.
HOPE AT THE BOTTOM
Aston Villa’s survival hopes were kick-started this weekend as a Gabriel Agbonlahor inspired Villa beat relegation rivals Norwich City 2-0 at Villa Park for just their third victory in 25 outings this season. Remi Garde’s men are giving themselves a slim chance of making the greatest of great escapes. With 13 games to go the Midlands giant is eight points from safety and need to win games, fast. They have a tough set of fixtures on the horizon but at least they now look solid and steady at the back with Mark Bunn putting in another good display in goal and a settled back four shutting down a lackluster Norwich. The Canaries actually slipped into the bottom three after this defeat, their fifth-straight loss, and Alex Neil has a crisis on his hands.
The reason Norwich slipped into the relegation zone is because Newcastle United climbed out with a thoroughly deserved 1-0 win at home against West Brom. It should have been three or four nil to Newcastle but Steve McClaren will be delighted his new signings — particularly Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend — have slotted in seamlessly. The Magpies have some easier games, on paper, coming up and a few more wins should drag them further clear from the drop zone. As for Tony Pulis‘ side, the Baggies are wobbling and are without a win in five as they continue to slide towards the bottom three. Each season there’s always one team which seems to slip towards the relegation abyss…
SAINTS, TOFFEES LIMBERING UP
Two teams heading on the way up are Southampton and Everton. Both teams harbored hopes of breaking into the top six ahead of the season and after difficult starts they have found their feet. No, that isn’t a direct reference to Roberto Martinez’s awesome Jason Derulo-inspired dance moves but as far as I’m concerned the clip below can’t be shown enough.
Martinez would have been left dancing for joy on the touchline on Saturday as his team raced into a 3-0 half time lead at Stoke City. The Potters’ defense was ripped open by incisive midfield running from the Toffees and Martinez resisted the urge to break out his inner Derulo. For now. “I thought about dancing,” Martinez said afterwards. “But I thought it was difficult to beat the moves the boys showed on the pitch.” Indeed. Everton is now up to eighth with two wins on the spin and just one defeat in their last six.
The team directly above them is Southampton who have enjoyed a superb last few weeks. Since goalkeeper Fraser Forster returned from a nine-month spell out injured they’ve won four out of five games, kept clean sheets in all five and Ronald Koeman was named Premier League Manager of the Month for January. On Saturday Saints ground out a 1-0 win at home against fellow top six hopefuls West Ham to drag themselves to within two points of the Hammer who sit one place above them in sixth spot in the table.
Southampton’s grit and determination to hold onto a 1-0 lead against West Ham after going down to 10-men with 40 minutes of the game left was remarkable. Victor Wanyama — who will now serve a five-game ban after picking up his third red card of the season — lunged in stupidly on Dmitri Payet and even though some may have not seen it as a straight-red, the Kenyan midfielder gave referee Mark Clattenburg the chance to send him off. Saints overcame that setback and in their next four encounters have some very winnable games. Both Southampton and Everton are back on track and challenging for the top six.
BONUS: Southampton are also launching an initiative to develop better coaches and players in North America. Find out what that’s all about in this exclusive piece as I went down to the South Coast last week to discuss their plans to muscle into the American soccer scene.
Premier League Playback comes out every week as PST’s Lead Writer and Editor takes an alternative look at all the action from the weekend. Read the full archive, here.