Saturday 21 April 2018

Leicester's darker side proves this isn't a Disney movie

Jamie Vardy
Jamie Vardy

Paul Hayward

Leicester are no longer just coasting to the title on a wave of love. A balancing splash of rancour and ugliness were added to this melodramatic tale as Jamie Vardy was sent off for diving and referee Jon Moss made an embarrassing spectacle of himself. But the happy ending is still intact.

Look at it this way: how did Spurs feel after Leicester equalised in added time with a penalty that suggested a guilty conscience on Moss' part for decisions taken against the Premier League leaders earlier in the game?

Dejection, despondency is the answer, because Leicester rumbled on defiantly, with Vardy off the pitch in disgrace and their coronation as English champions no longer under sudden threat.

If this was a 'wobble', every club in England would be happy to have one so undamaging, should they find themselves in Leicester's position.

A defeat here would have set off the tremors - and certainly sent Spurs to Stoke with nostrils flaring. As it is, the story of the greatest case of spectacular upward mobility since Brian Clough's Nottingham Forest is still in one piece.

But as the pressure builds, we see the team's more calculating side. If Richard III's re-interment started all this off, as some mystics argue, Claudio Ranieri's men are not the cathedral choirboys.

Eulogies have flowed all season for this entertaining, committed and trailblazing team - so there is no harm in acknowledging their darker impulses, which sucked them into trouble on a day when a referee's critical faculties deserted him.

There are always volcanic days like this one in a league-winning campaign. Leicester's mighty team spirit, meanwhile, can turn combative when it needs to.

The sole aim now is to cross the line in front in May, or before, not earn more plaudits. The time for that has passed, from their perspective, at any rate.

Vardy's dismissal for diving was an accident waiting to happen. A model of self-improvement and relentless endeavour (on the pitch), Vardy has also perfected the art of running across or into defenders around the penalty box in the hope of bringing about contact sufficient for the referee to decide that he has been fouled. Riyad Mahrez also dabbles with this tactic to put pressure on match officials.

When it works, free-kicks and penalties ensue. When it goes wrong, it looks like blatant diving.

A personal opinion is that Vardy felt Angelo Ogbonna's hand grip his arm as he raced towards the West Ham penalty box and so told himself he would be justified in launching himself to the floor at an incompatible angle (causing a tangle of legs on the way).

Objectively, after seeing replays, you could say Vardy (pictured) dived, but it was a surprise that Moss felt sufficiently sure of his ground to show a second yellow card (the England striker had been booked earlier for a foul on Cheikhou Kouyate).

Vardy's apparently unpleasant tirade at the referee as he left the field confirmed the obvious truth that this is not one long Disney film. Defensively, too, Leicester City were rugby's Leicester Tigers for the day, with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan reviving a vanished age in which centre-backs saw their job as the physical subjugation of opposing strikers.

Huth and Morgan banged, barged, battled and bundled West Ham's forwards, to the point where Slaven Bilic sent on Andy Carroll at half-time to redress the bruise imbalance.

Moss is said to have warned Huth and Morgan to stop grappling in the penalty box - a practice now endemic in football, and punished rarely, and usually arbitrarily. And when Morgan threw his arms round Winston Reid, Moss decided he had seen enough and awarded a penalty, which Carroll converted.

Guess what, though. West Ham's Ogbonna then committed a similar offence against Huth at the other end, but was not punished. Finally, after Aaron Cresswell's brilliant long-range zinger to give West Ham the lead, Moss seemed to want to even up the whole mess, and granted Leicester a penalty for an innocuous bump by Carroll on Jeffrey Schlupp, which Leonardo Ulloa dispatched.

"It was a good game of football," Bilic said. "Red card. Tackling. Crosses. Everything."

It was a game of football so emotionally confused that Leicester fans booed Moss off moments after he had given their team a phantom penalty for the Carroll challenge on Schlupp. They were still too angry from the Vardy sending-off and the penalty given against Morgan. Yet both Leicester centre-backs had stretched the laws of the game to twanging point.

But Leicester are doing precisely what the script demands. They are fixing a cold eye on the points they need to win a first English title.

To that end, they also produced the game's best move, after Kasper Schmeichel had thrown the ball to Mahrez, who twisted and stroked it to N'Golo Kante, who galloped on and slipped it to Vardy to score the opening goal.

All three of Leicester's PFA player-of-the-year nominees combined for that beautiful counter-attack.

Most angels come with dirty faces, when they have to. (© Daily Telegraph)

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