Tuesday 16 January 2018

Foxes outgun limp City to go five points clear

Manchester City 1-3 Leicester City

Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez fires past Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart to make it 2-0 Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez fires past Manchester City goalkeeper Joe Hart to make it 2-0 Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Robert Huth celebrates the third goal Photo: ADRIAN DENNIS/AFP/Getty Images
Foxes fans enjoy the victory Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (left) and Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini at the touchline Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire

Etihad Stadium

"This Is Happening, This Is Happening." When Robert Huth Headed In Leicester City's third goal at the Etihad, the commentator from BBC Radio Leicester could have been excused for wondering if what he was watching was real.

But this is happening, this extraordinary attempt to claim arguably the most improbable league title in the history of the English game is happening. Leicester City ended their afternoon five points clear at the top of the table, after a performance that captured all that is magnificent in Claudio Ranieri's side.

Their strengths were Manchester City's weaknesses. City had charged at Leicester during a gripping first half but Huth and Wes Morgan were their usual immovable selves, while in front of them N'Golo Kante and the superb Danny Drinkwater suffocated a Manchester City midfield which was almost willingly enveloped.

Those four are among the eight Leicester players who have started 20 or more of their league games this season, and this cohesive unity is what distinguishes them from the sides in pursuit of them.

"We are 11 on the pitch. We play every time as 11 players, it is the best spirit I remember in my career," Claudio Ranieri said afterwards.

The spirit has been boosted by their improbable climb to the top of the table, but the unity has been central to it. Future generations will have few problems naming the Leicester players who make up the regular first 11 and which may yet make history. This is one of the many things which distinguishes them from Manchester City, who, by the end of the day, had become a tired and feeble collection of individuals.

As Manchester City chased the game at 3-0 down, Yaya Toure and David Silva were taken off. Two of their biggest personalities weren't required as stuttering City tried to fight their way back into one of the biggest games of the season. A lot has been said about the advantages Pep Guardiola will have at the Etihad, but his greatest test will be creating the sense of team purpose that has been the defining characteristic of his teams.

Manuel Pellegrini wasn't prepared to concede the title with 13 games remaining yesterday and there remains a long way to go in this race. His side might yet regain the Premier League title but they won't do it playing as they did in the second half yesterday; Leicester may lose it from this point, but if they keep playing like they did here, the signs are they won't.

It had felt like the day when Leicester City's incredible story would end. They were in the middle of a run of fixtures which would test them to the fullest. Their victory against Liverpool last Tuesday night had increased the focus on them, and surely a City with Sergio Aguero, Silva, Raheem Sterling and Toure could cut through nebulous concepts like unity and spirit?

Instead they took an early lead when Huth's flick towards goal spun off Martin Demichelis into the net. They would have sat back anyway, but now they could try and pick off the home side on the counter-attack.

They found Manchester City's defence and midfield willing accomplices in this plan as they allowed Leicester to burst through when they wanted. Jamie Vardy and Drinkwater got free only for Joe Hart to save. They were robust as well. Morgan found himself on the left wing and then took Aguero out shortly afterwards. Christian Fuchs could have conceded a penalty when he brought down Pablo Zabaleta.

Vardy crossed for Shinji Okasaki whose touch wasn't good enough, and Huth blocked an Aleksandar Kolarov free-kick with his head before getting the finest of touches on a Sterling cross to take it away from Aguero.

But the game was about more than the incidents; in the pelting rain, nobody shirked.

Huth and Sterling went shoulder to shoulder and towards the end of the half, even a hop ball was contested as nobody wanted to relent for a second.

Money and power would have said that Leicester would have been the side to take a backward step, but not this season.

Within minutes of the second half starting, Riyad Mahrez had doubled Leicester's lead. He picked up the ball from Kante and swished past a series of comic challenges. Nicolas Otamendi dived in but Mahrez skipped by before ignoring the attempts to stop him from Demichelis and Kolarov which were easy to ignore.

Huth headed in a third from a corner after Vardy had spun away from Zabaleta and put in a dangerous cross.

Leicester had arrived hoping to do anything for victory, and now that victory seemed easy, or as easy as anything which depends on the collective efforts of this extraordinary group of people assembled here.

Aguero headed in for Pellegrini's side minutes from the end, and there was an anxious moment when Danny Simpson passed a ball straight to him, but Aguero ran too wide to score. He was Manchester City's only hope.

Leicester will hope their important men stay fit, but if they can't afford to lose Vardy, City are in the same position with Aguero.

The imbalances might be rectified in other ways. City's schedule over the coming weeks will stretch their squad, while Leicester have to travel to Arsenal next week, before looking forward to theoretically easier games.

But there was a time when facing Leicester City was considered easy and nothing is certain in this season. Well, one thing is certain.

At the final whistle, those home fans who remained applauded Ranieri's players off the pitch, while the Radio Leicester commentator began to talk about how frightened he now was of all that remains and all that can be achieved.

The players and manager don't appear to share that fear. "We are alive and we want to fight," Ranieri said at the end. Leicester are more than alive, they are the electrifying presence at the centre of this extraordinary season. This is happening.

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