Sunday 8 December 2019

Everything up for grabs with top four going to war today

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo: PA
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo: PA

Paul Wilson

Today, as Oasis so nearly said, is gonna be the day when we discover whether the fire in Leicester City's heart is out. Having established title credentials beyond any doubt by trampling over Manchester City last week, can Claudio Ranieri's runaway leaders do the same thing all over again at Arsenal, or is this the point in the season when self-doubt and realism begin to creep in?

Arsenal beat Leicester handsomely at the King Power back in September, after all, and no one else has managed to do that before or since. If Arsenal pass this test, it could set them up for a confident run-in, although the same is true of Tottenham at the Etihad, where Mauricio Pochettino's newly robust side do not look in any immediate danger of allowing Manchester City a first win of the season against top-six opponents.

City have somehow managed to remain title contenders, if not exactly favourites any longer, despite failing to beat any of their closest rivals all season. Even failing to beat is something of a euphemism. They failed to beat Tottenham at White Hart Lane through conceding four goals to one scored. When they failed to beat Liverpool on their own ground, the scoreline was identical. And when Leicester arrived last week just begging to be knocked off their perch by a real Champions League team with Pep Guardiola signed up as their next manager, the Foxes were three goals to the good before City managed anything in reply.

Exciting as it is to have the top four playing each other on the same day, with due respect to those Arsenal and Leicester supporters inconvenienced by Sky switching their game, it might be a mistake to assume that this top four is the definitive version. As the season has so conclusively proved, the Premier League top four is no longer set in stone. Anyone can get up there, and that is still the case for the next couple of months.

Well, almost anyone. Manuel Pellegrini has claimed any of five or six teams can still win the title. That might be erring on the side of generosity, especially after Manchester United's latest slip-up. Not only were Manchester City unexpectedly beaten by Leicester last week - Pellegrini said he did not expect it anyway, everyone else had a fair idea it might be on the cards - they have so many injuries that they now announce them in formation.

"In defence we have Sagna and Mangala missing," Pellegrini said on Friday. "In midfield we are without Nasri, Navas, Delph and De Bruyne." The Chilean knows he is in charge of a large and expensive squad and normally goes out of his way to avoid using injuries as an excuse, though the fact is that City are losing momentum at a crucial time in the season. Vincent Kompany is ready to begin another comeback, but David Silva appears tired, Yaya Toure has started to be substituted because his influence on games is waning, and once again the whole campaign looks dangerously over-reliant on Sergio Aguero.

There are some big extra-curricular games coming up, too, with the League Cup final, the resumption of the Champions League and the awkwardly scheduled fifth round FA Cup tie against Chelsea. Yet in spite of all those distractions, it is the league position that fascinates. Just a couple of weeks ago, the assumption was that though Pellegrini was putting a brave face on having to make way for Guardiola, he ought to be able to sign off with a second title and perhaps some additional silverware to show the club they were losing a good coach. Now a quite different eventuality raises its head.

At the very least, City need a result today to suggest they are on the up again, not tailing off at the wrong moment. So to a slightly lesser extent do Arsenal, whose win at Bournemouth last week was their first in five games. Both the home teams in today's top-four double- header have ground to regain, Arsenal and City need to prove that after being fancied earlier in the season, they can last the pace.

The away teams are the actual pace-setters. No one gave Spurs much of a chance of the title at the start of the season, never mind Leicester, but both have hit form and fluency at the right time to produce results that brook no argument.

Here's Leicester's Wes Morgan, for example. "The pressure is on Arsenal every season when it comes down to the crunch. They get to a point where everyone expects them to go on and win it. We can only focus on our own game, and we know it is not going to be easy, but we have proved quite good at focusing on our own performances this season. We are not listening to the title talk, others can speculate about that, and we are not still pinching ourselves after the result at City. We know our capabilities and we have belief. People are really playing at their peak at the moment."

That is obviously true of Leicester, but also of Tottenham. City have disappointed on their big occasions so far, people expect Arsenal to disappoint through ingrained habit, but Spurs, having nothing since 1961 to live up to, can play without fear. Ranieri keeps saying this is a crazy season, and he may be right, because while the irrepressible rise of the underdog appears to be based on thrift and good housekeeping, everyone thinks the levelling up will be more pronounced next season because clubs will have even more money.

"English clubs will get £100m from television next year, so they can buy what they want from anywhere," Arsene Wenger points out. "They will probably spend it on foreign players, so more and more good English players will end up in the lower leagues or non-league. I have always been criticised for defending the idea that it is not only money that is important in football, so I am happy to give Leicester credit. But it is strange what happens with money. Leicester signed Riyad Mahrez for £400,000 and he has been great. If I signed a player for that much, people would question it, they would say I was not serious. Arsenal have to spend £40m on a player for people to think he must be really good."

Pellegrini knows all about that. "Big clubs must spend more money on important players," he says. "But there are a lot of very good players who are not on the front pages of every newspaper all the time.

"The top six or seven clubs will always want the same 10 important players, after that it is down to scouting. I think the gap between the top four and the rest will be reduced still more next season, when everyone has money, but you still need quality.

"Leicester have shown that, but we cannot keep talking about Leicester like it is a miracle. Last year, with another manager, they won games in a row to stay up, so it started then. They have important, quality players, and a very experienced manager. They are a big team, and that's exactly how they play."

You could say Arsenal have been warned, though they probably do not need warning, 5-2 win in September or not. For Arsenal and for City, the current top-four order is practically a flashing red light.


Arsenal v Leicester City

Sky Sports 1, 12.0

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