Premier League Playback: Dangerous for Leicester to, finally, believe?

3 Comments

LEICESTER, FINALLY, BELIEVE

Leicester City’s fans finally seem to believe they are going to win the Premier League. They voiced that belief through song this weekend and for the first time it was widespread and not sporadic. 

Timely reminder: Leicester was meant to be in a relegation battle this season. They sit top on 66 points. 

You can understand why it’s taken a while for the Foxes fans, players and management to believe, but after securing a fourth 1-0 win in their last five outings away at Crystal Palace on Saturday they still have a five-point lead heading into the final seven games of the season.

[ VIDEO: Premier League highlights ]

Claudio Ranieri‘s side continue to be clinical when they get a chance as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez combined for the game-winner, yet again. That duo has now scored 37 of Leicester’s 54 goals this season and have added 17 assists between them.

With a solid base of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth holding firm late on when Palace hit the crossbar and piled on the pressure, Leicester can bend but not break. In truth, Shinji Okazaki missed two decent chances during the game and Mahrez fluffed another when it was 0-0 but it didn’t matter. Right now Leicester is squeezing by teams and it is something they’ve become experts at doing since the turn of the year as they’ve conceded just six times in the PL, the lowest number of any club.

[ MORE: Ranieri – “Now the others must do something”

The Foxes have won 13 games by a one-goal margin this season, more than any other PL club, and their ability to allay any nerves and play their normal game is remarkable. With seven games left, that will hold them in good stead. Ranieri knows it, and even he is starting to believe.

“Our fans are singing — that is fantastic, but we have to stay calm and concentrated,” Ranieri said. “I remember at the start of the season, I haven’t forgotten: The goal was to save the team.”

“Now everybody is speaking about us. Not only in England but around the world.”

Below is a look at how the Leicester fans reacted to the latest win at Selhurst Park. If they do manage to win the PL it will be one of the greatest stories in sporting history. Period.

All together now…

But with Tottenham hot on Leicester heels following their 3-0 demolition of Bournemouth on Sunday, is it a little early for these songs?

Of course, Leicester’s fans were braced for a relegation battle ahead of this season so anything other than that is a bonus. All but securing UEFA Champions League qualification with seven games to go is a huge bonus.

However, the main nagging reason fans of Leicester haven’t been able to really believe they can win the title is due to Tottenham still being in touching distance. Even Arsenal will be eight points back if they win their game in hand following their 2-0 win at Everton this weekend and as we said in Playback last week, it’s a two-horse race for the title. Spurs possess the better players, but my mind casts back to a cold January evening at White Hart Lane when Spurs dominated Leicester but fell 1-0 to a Robert Huth header late on. That three points swing could be pivotal when all is said and done but Mauricio Pochettino‘s young team also believes they can win the league.

[ MORE: Pochettino urges Spurs to believe ]

At Leicester, Ranieri is rightly trying to keep everyone focused but with Harry Kane scoring five times in his last three PL outings — he now leads the PL with 21 goals — and Spurs possessing the best defense in the league, this title race is far from over.

Deep down, despite their jubilation at Selhurst on Saturday, Leicester’s fans know it.


DERBY DAY DRAMA

Premier League Schedule – Week 31

Result Recap & Highlights
Chelsea 2-2 West Ham Recap, watch here
C. Palace 0-1 Leicester Recap, watch here
Everton 0-2 Arsenal Recap, watch here
Man City 0-1 Man Utd Recap, watch here
N’castle 1-1 S’land Recap, watch here
Saints 3-2 Liverpool Recap, watch here
Swansea 1-0 A. Villa Recap, watch here
Tottenham 3-0 B’mouth Recap, watch here
Watford 1-2 Stoke Recap, watch here
West Brom 0-1 Norwich Recap, watch here

Sunday was derby day in the Premier League as the Manchester and Tyne-Wear derbies took center stage.

Predictably, both were full of passion and tension. The latter emotion was most prevalent, and was reflective of the negative situations Manchester City and Manchester United, plus Newcastle United and Sunderland, currently find themselves in.

[ MORE: 3 things from Manchester derby ] 

I was at the Manchester derby as Louis Van Gaal‘s side grabbed a big win courtesy of local lad Marcus Rashford netting the winnner.

Rashford, 18, now has five goals in his first eight games as a professional for United and has taken the chance presented to him. United has a real chance of finishing in the top four as they sit just one point behind their “noisy neighbors” City who are tumbling down the standings with incoming boss Pep Guardiola in real jeopardy of not having the chance to manage in the UEFA Champions League next season. That wasn’t in the masterplan.

Outgoing City boss, Manuel Pellegrini, uncharacteristically walked out of his postgame TV interview and was abrasive when asked about his slumping City side in the postgame press conference. He wasn’t happy and after seeing his defense ripped apart by Rashford — Martin Demichelis is still untangling his legs after the first goal and put in a shocking performance before being subbed out — it became readily apparent how ridiculously reliant City is on captain Vincent Kompany. The sooner the Belgian center back comes back the better, but the potential to be without him for the UCL quarterfinals clashes against Paris Saint-Germain doesn’t bode well.

As for United, Van Gaal was buoyed by the big win and after the game ProSoccerTalk asked him about one man who was influential in the victory: Morgan Schneiderlin.

“I don’t have to say that too loud because the last time I said I was very happy with Morgan Schneiderlin, after that he didn’t play too well,” Van Gaal laughed. “Today he played a very good match. He was a lot of times available to receive the pass but also defnesively he was very firm and strong. He played also a very important position in midfield. I was very happy.”

Momentum is building for Manchester United with Bastian Schweinsteiger coming back to full fitness, Wayne Rooney not far away and it seems like United have a much better chance than City of finishing in fourth. Perhaps Van Gaal’s days at United aren’t numbered after all…

In the other derby, Sunderland squandered yet another lead late on but in truth, a draw was a fair result, as the two north east giants went head-to-head in a relegation six-pointer. A draw, especially after Norwich’s first win in 10 earlier in the weekend, did neither team any good and it seems increasingly likely that at least one of Newcastle or Sunderland will go down.

[ MORE: Promise for Magpies despite derby draw

10 days after arriving Rafael Benitez now has the entire international break to work with many of his Newcastle players to try and get them set up defensively and there is hope. However, after the break they face Norwich City and Swansea City in the space of three games. Those are now must wins despite Aleksandar Mitrovic‘s late equalizer halting a run of six-straight defeats to their bitter rivals Sunderland.

That moment was all too much for one Newcastle fan who ran onto the pitch to celebrate with Mitrovic and the hilarious scenes below ensued. Obviously, I don’t condone fans entering the field of play but this sums up the sheer elation and relief felt among the home fans at St. James’ Park. This is what derby day is all about.


THE CHASING PACK

United’s derby win didn’t only reignite their chances of finishing in the top four but it also helped West Ham United and Southampton, plus Stoke City and even Liverpool — with their games in hand — are still in the hunt too.

The Hammers should be in the top four, really. They were leading London rivals Chelsea 2-1 heading into stoppage time but Michail Antonio was adjudged to have clipped Ruben Loftus-Cheek in the penalty box and Cesc Fabregas scored the spot kick to grab Chelsea a 2-2 draw. The foul was outside the box and Slaven Bilic was incensed, but the Hammers sit just one point behind Man City heading into the final eight games of the season. With the Olympic Stadium move happening this summer, West Ham are in a straight-battle with the two Manchester clubs for the final UEFA Champions League qualification spot.

As for Southampton, their remarkable comeback against Liverpool on Sunday summed up the spirit Ronald Koeman‘s side possesses. Trailing 2-0 at half time at home to Liverpool, Sadio Mane had a penalty kick saved less than five minutes into the second half but Saints came roaring back and scored three times late in the second half to win 3-2. It was the first-time in PL history that Liverpool had lost after leading by at least two goals at half time.

Southampton have played a game more than West Ham and the Manchester clubs but sit four points behind City with seven games to go. They have some momentum heading into the international break and even the usually cool-headed Koeman got carried away and ran down the touchline to celebrate the game-winner against Liverpool with his players.

Saints will be delighted with finishing seventh again this season (that’s their highest-ever PL finish and it occurred last season) but maybe they and West Ham can surge and finish above the two ailing Manchester clubs?


USMNT UPDATE

Tim Howard‘s move from Everton to Colorado Rapids was confirmed on Sunday, with the Everton goalkeeper to head back to Major League Soccer in July after the conclusion of the 2015-16 PL season.

Howard, 36, will reportedly be paid just under $2.5 million a year and after signing a three-year deal to become the Rapids’ newest Designated Player he believes the “time is right” to head home and be closer to his family.

[ MORE: Changing of the guard at Everton ]

There’s no doubt about it, Howard has been a wonderful ambassador for American players in England. Over the past 13 years, first with Manchester United and then in his 10-year spell with Everton, Howard has been solid and dependable. For the U.S. national team his performance against Belgium at the 2014 World Cup will always stick out, but Jurgen Klinsmann will hope big things still lie ahead for Howard who could easily play until the 2018 World Cup in Russia. This certainly shouldn’t mark the end of his international career, even if Howard has been criticized by some of the Everton supporters for his displays this season which have ultimately seen him dropped at the expense of Joel Robles.

This move to Colorado makes Howard the best-paid goalkeeper in MLS history, but it also makes sense for a man whose children live in the U.S. and who has lived overseas for 13 years. Howard is returning home and it will be quite something to see how the fanbase in Colorado, and across MLS, reacts to his homecoming.

In terms of the other USMNT players in the PL, Geoff Cameron started and played the full 90 at center back as Stoke stayed hot on the heels of the pack chasing European qualification with a 2-1 win at Watford. DeAndre Yedlin played the full 90 in Sunderland’s 1-1 derby draw at Newcastle but his foul throw came in the build up to Mitrovic’s equalizer which is something Sam Allardyce is likely to be incensed by. Then there’s poor old Aston Villa and Brad Guzan. Villa is now 12 points off safety and has lost six-straight with Guzan making a howler for Swansea’s winning-goal at the weekend. Heading into next season, with Howard’s departure and Guzan’s impending relegation, there could be just two full U.S. national team players in the PL.

Howard, Cameron, Yedlin and Guzan are all in Klinsmann’s latest USMNT squad as they face Guatemala home and away on Mar. 25 and 29 in 2018 World Cup qualifying.


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.