Friday 20 April 2018

Mahrez fires Leicester closer to promised land

Crystal Palace 0 Leicester City 1

Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley and Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki battle for possession at Selhurst Park yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy.
Crystal Palace’s Joe Ledley and Leicester City’s Shinji Okazaki battle for possession at Selhurst Park yesterday. Photo: Adam Davy.
Leicester City's N'Golo Kante and Crystal Palace's Mile Jedinak battle for the ball. Photo: Adam Davy/PA Wire.
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy tries to evade Crystal Palace's Damien Delaney. Photo: Tony O'Brien/Action Images via Reuters

Barney Ronay

That's how you're gonna beat 'em, Claudio. They keep on underestimating you. Leicester went eight points clear at the top of the Premier League with a tight, eagerly fought 1-0 victory made by Riyad Mahrez's well-worked winning goal, and by some dogged defending as Crystal Palace attacked with purpose in the last half hour.

Palace pressed hard at times. Leicester were good in spells but rarely at full stretch. And so the procession towards what is starting to look a slightly routine fairytale title push continues with a fourth 1-0 win in five games. At times it is tempting to wonder not whether Leicester are going to choke or collapse, but whether anyone is actually going to give them a game right from the start. Or at least tear into them as Palace only did here towards the end once Alan Pardew had rejigged his team to stem the threat of Mahrez down the right.

The Algerian was the difference in the first half, delicately purposeful in possession, tracking back down the right when required and a ghost off the ball as Palace attacked. Pape Souaré's substitution at half-time was presumably because he needed to have his neck iced, so many times did Palace's left-back find himself whirling around in a funk trying to work out exactly where Mahrez had shimmied off to.

The finish for the crucial first-half goal was routine from Mahrez, but it was made by a fine, pre-emptive run, and by the usual boldness Leicester's chief creator tends to show away from home. Ten of Mahrez's Premier League goals have come away from the King Power. Most have come at vital points. He may be lithe and louche and blessed with a feathery touch, but he has been fearless too, not just decorating this team but driving them on too.

Leicester picked the usual team. Palace were unchanged too, with Yannick Bolasie a step or two behind Emmanuel Adebayor and given freedom to scuttle about in search of space. It turned out to be a shape poorly fitted to the personnel, however, as Joe Ledley, not a natural left-midfielder, struggled to track Mahrez and protect his full back. At half-time Pardew acted, junking his entire left side, bringing on Martin Kelly and Bakary Sako. By then, though, it was too late.

All of which made for some unfortunate timing given Pardew's unusually grudging programme notes, in which he got his praise for the league leaders out of the way up front and lingered instead on the 10 penalties Leicester have been awarded this season and their lack of injuries, along with a lament about his own team's bad luck on similar "fine margins".

It is certainly an argument. Another might be that Leicester win penalties because of their high-speed, well-grooved passing game that tests defenders unprotected by leaky midfields. As was the case here, where Leicester's best attacker was marked by a player out of position.

For the opening 20 minutes this was a dour, muscular, grudging game of football. Leicester's great skill is staying patient, sticking to the plan, waiting for their strengths to tell. Here Palace matched them, only forgetting themselves for the first time on 18 minutes as the midfield pushed up together and, with one lovely instant pass from Danny Drinkwater, Mahrez was put through on goal. Wayne Hennessey read the jink inside and got his hand to Mahrez's low shot.

With half an hour gone Bolasie took Yohan Cabaye's pass brilliantly on the run and crossed for Wilf Zaha, who could only screw his shot wide.

Four minutes later Leicester offered their own lesson in precision. Vardy pulled out to the left of the area and took Drinkwater's quick volleyed pass. Dancing away from Joel Ward he crossed low for Mahrez, unmarked, to slot the ball low into the near corner. It was a well-executed goal, with every player on the move and in sync, but Palace's defending was slack too.

And for a while Leicester were all over Palace, winning the ball back, pouring in off the flanks. Pardew's changes changed the game, as Palace's reconfigured front three of Zaha, Bolasie and Sako provided greater drive. Albeit there was perhaps a lack of a real goalscorer among them as first Sako and then Kelly fired powerful low crosses through the six-yard box.

Bolasie had a powerful shot well saved. At the death Damien Delaney swivelled and fired a shot on to the bar after a corner. Palace kept pushing. Leicester hung on. It really is theirs to lose from here.


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