Monday 19 March 2018

Leicester carrying the mantle of leaders with increasing comfort

Watford 0 Leicester City 1

Riyad Mahrez celebrates after scoring the Leicester goal. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Riyad Mahrez celebrates after scoring the Leicester goal. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Leicester's Marc Albrighton in action against Watford's Allan Nyom. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Jonathan Liew

Leicester City are five points clear at the top of the Premier League. There we are: a perfectly normal, reasonable English sentence. And even if the nine games between now and the end of the season still feel like a giant leap, of imagination as much as time, then the moment may be drawing near when we admit that of the teams still chasing the title, Leicester are the only ones not blinking. The only ones who appear to be savouring the pressure. The only ones, dare we say it, who look like they know what they are doing.

Quite how we reached this point is of some interest in itself, but here all that really needs to be said is that Leicester were once again superb. They defended with equal parts discipline and intelligence, once again proving that they are currently without parallel when it comes to the unfashionable arts of the game: a hoof, a block, a grapple, a sly tug of the shirt in just the spot where the referee's gaze is obscured. Wes Morgan, especially, is brilliant at this sort of stuff.

Going forward, they carved out enough chances for Riyad Mahrez eventually to take one of them. Credit is due once more to their manager Claudio Ranieri, whose double-substitution at half-time had a decisive bearing on the result. Mahrez's goal broke open a game that was beginning to live up to pre-match expectations of a gritty slugfest. It was an unexpectedly open game, a resolutely English game, a game without a discernible midfield: cold and wet, muscular and direct. These are, of course, two sides who are far more comfortable playing without the ball than with it, and so the effect was rather like watching two children trying to flick each other in the head: unrefined, and yet strangely compelling.

Leicester should probably have been ahead already at half-time. It was a half that declined in quality as it went on, as both sides began to settle into their familiar patterns of entrenchment. With Leicester's defensive midfielders dropping back and effectively forming a back six, Watford could certainly find no way around them. And switching from a 4-4-2 to a 4-3-3 has enabled Watford to rediscover their defensive solidity in recent weeks. But the two best chances of the half fell to the visitors. Wes Morgan's free header from eight yards arrowed straight into the arms of Heurelho Gomes.

Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy looked almost certain to finish a textbook counter-attacking blitz at the near post, but was sufficiently disturbed by Sebastian Prodl to put his dig wide. Indeed, Leicester could even have gone ahead earlier, either when Vardy managed to sprint around the helpless Gomes and shoot from a tight angle, or when Christian Fuchs' vicious, low shot was parried into a densely crowded penalty area. Both times they were denied by Nathan Ake, a left-back moonlighting at centre-half in place of Miguel Britos, who suffered a hamstring injury during the warm-up.

The fusillade of long balls and hopeful shoves into the channel was putting both defences under pressure. Ake's header from a Ben Watson free-kick momentarily alarmed Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal, who could only watch it like a satellite as it looped over him and landed on the crossbar.

Troy Deeney's crisp shot from 14 yards might have found its way into the bottom corner had it not clipped off Danny Simpson first. All in all, though, there was little to unduly worry the knot of Leicester City fans standing in the north-east corner of the ground, steadily ploughing through their jaunty song book of familiar standards: "Here's To You, Danny Drinkwater", "Jamie Vardy's Having A Party" and, most drolly of all, "We Are Staying Up". Watford fans responded by reminding them of their dramatic last-ditch win in the play-off semi-final of 2013: "Do you remember 3-1?"

The ceasefire was majestically broken 10 minutes into the second half. There was really no need for Jose Holebas to head a Fuchs cross back into the danger zone: he was unchallenged, after all, and could easily have nodded the ball into touch. But Mahrez, taking a step and a shimmy, made him pay dearly, taking a touch, picking his spot, curling the ball left-footed around Gomes with a finish that looked better with every subsequent replay.

It was a vindication of Ranieri's daring half-time change, bringing off striker Shinji Okazaki and replacing him with midfielder Andy King. With more cover behind him, it freed Mahrez to play much further forward, closer to Vardy, the genie released from the bottle. Gambles like that are why Ranieri has been such a breath of fresh air this season, and in this double switch - for Jeff Schlupp also replaced Marc Albrighton at the break - there were echoes of his epic half-time substitution for Roma against Lazio a few years back, when he hauled off hometown heroes Daniele de Rossi and Francesco Totti, and turned a 1-0 derby deficit into a famous 2-1 win.The difference between tinkering and alchemy, it turns out, is not as wide as you might think. Nordin Amrabat had a shot saved from a tight angle as Watford pressed for an equaliser. Odion Ighalo - now without a goal in seven games - put a weak header straight at Schmeichel. But somehow, Watford never looked consistently threatening enough to engineer a proper grandstand finish. Leicester's main worry, in fact, was a possible injury to Mahrez, who pulled up chasing a long ball, clutching his hamstring. Mahrez limped on for another few minutes, before eventually being replaced.

And while a significant injury to Leicester's star winger might once have been regarded as a terminal blow, this is a side who have dealt with every inconvenience strewn in their path so far. Writing them off in the absence of one player- even one as good and as crucial as Mahrez - feels a little like clutching at straws.

Full-time came, and with it another tune from the Leicester end: "We're top of the league." That it now feels like a familiar refrain is telling in itself. Leicester City are five points clear at the top of the Premier League. And yes, it is beginning to feel a little less weird typing those words.


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