Leicester's tasty defence earning their pizzas now
Crystal Palace 0-1 Leicester City
Published 21/03/2016 | 02:30
A running gag at the start of the season, when everyone thought plucky little Leicester City was a feel-good story that would fade away when the campaign stepped up a gear, was Claudio Ranieri's weekly jokey lament that his team's failure to keep a clean sheet meant he did not have to keep his promise to reward them with pizza.
The Foxes conceded 19 goals in their first 11 matches, unable to keep a clean sheet once, not even against Bury in the League Cup. It was only Jamie Vardy's goals that kept them among the big boys. That, all agreed, could not last - and it has not.
Since his 11-match consecutive goalscoring run ended in November, the England striker has scored five goals in 18 matches - an inferior record to Marko Arnautovic of Stoke City and on a par with Bournemouth's Josh King.
There is a perception that Riyad Mahrez has taken on the responsibility but Saturday's winner at Selhurst Park was only the Algerian's third goal in 2016. The difference is that Leicester have stopped conceding goals.
This was their ninth clean sheet in 13 league matches, with West Bromwich's two goals at the start of the month the only breach in five.
"They're a good team," said an admiring Alan Pardew. "They don't give a lot away. They're underestimated defensively. They've got energy and they're up to the ball all the time. They're tight and it's difficult to create against them.
"(Bakary) Sako produced four or five unbelievable moments just to create something for us; that's the kind of level you need to be at just to get a chance against this team."
The Crystal Palace manager added: "The two centre-halves are confident in possession, they rarely make mistakes, they don't slash at clearances. They make good clearances from their defensive third and they're fast. They have a lovely balance to the team and you have to admire them."
Those centre-halves, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, cost around £4m in total - £70m less than Manchester City's hapless duo of Nicolas Otamendi and Eliaquim Mangala.
They look too similar and too old-fashioned, vulnerable to pace and inadequate in possession. But both read the game well, are no slouches once they get moving, and are protected by pace at full-back and a screening midfield.
They do the simple things well and, as Morgan showed with one superbly timed tackle on Yannick Bolasie, make some of the difficult things look simple.
Leicester's defensive excellence should perhaps not be that surprising. Italian managers tend to be astute in that regard and Ranieri - a defender himself in his playing days - is no exception.
Former Middlesbrough defender Gianluca Festa recently praised Ranieri's defensive organisation during a promotion-winning season at Cagliari.
Ranieri, said Festa, spent a lot of time working on defence, both with individuals and the team.
There has clearly been much of the same this winter at Leicester's Belvoir Drive training ground.
Explaining the improvement from the autumn, Ranieri said it had taken time for the players to adapt to his tactical demands defensively - including their positional play when in possession to avoid being vulnerable to the counter-attack.
He also paid tribute to the work of N'Golo Kanté who, like his English midfield partner Danny Drinkwater, has been called up for national team duty for the first time.
Kanté overshadowed his French rival Yohann Cabaye and Ranieri said: "For us, he is very important when he is in front of the defence - who is going to pass him? It is incredible, incredible."
As, indeed, is so much about Leicester's season.
Mahrez scored the only goal in the Foxes' third successive 1-0 victory in the league and, while these are narrow margins, there is no doubting the quality of the league leaders who Ranieri says are in the home straight.
"Now I want to see my horses run", he added, unwilling, as ever, to make any bold promises or stake any emotion on winning the title.
Ranieri has seen enough triumph and despair to know that the blow can come at any time, in any game, as it did for Liverpool's title aspirations two seasons ago at this same ground.
But not Leicester, and not this day at least, when Palace's only real attempt on goal came in the second minute of time added on when Damien Delaney's shot skimmed the bar.
Ranieri would just about concede that his team will qualify for the Europa League next season, with a fleeting mention of the Champions League, but they are 16 points clear of West Ham in fifth place, so that is as good as done.
The question is what more can be achieved and, although Ranieri refuses to talk about the title there was a moment afterwards when he allowed himself to remember how gloomy the predictions had been in August.
"Believe me, I'm very happy with this season," he said. "I remember the start of the season…- I have not forgotten.
"The goal was to save the team (in the Premier League) and now everybody is speaking about us. Not only in England - all over the world. Everyone is pushing behind us and that is a great energy that we feel. If in the end someone is better than us, we still had a fantastic achievement."
Independent News Service