Ranieri salutes Leicester's fighting spirit
Leicester City 1 West Ham United 0
The way Leicester City rounded off the greatest year in their history augurs well for 2017. The champions will not retain their title, of course, but this timely reassertion of the virtues that earned them their proudest honour at least suggested they are primed to avoid an undignified descent into the relegation zone. Not that Claudio Ranieri is making any bold declarations in that regard: he counts points, not chickens, but he acknowledged that this tenacious performance was a step in the right direction.
"It has been an amazing, unforgettable year and, of course, 2016 will remain in our hearts and minds," said Ranieri. "But it was important to win here and see our fans supporting us and our players fighting together."
Ranieri had similar thoughts three weeks ago after the rousing victory over Manchester City but his team did not sustain their form after that, which is why it remained their only victory in nine league matches prior to this one. That run had left Ranieri facing accusations that his persistence with the 4-4-2 system that served his side so well last season amounted to trying to make cake from stale bread. The manager concocted a new formation for this match and it worked a treat. But an even bigger factor than the switch to a 4-2-3-1 shape was the attitude of Leicester's players. They played with the zest and resilience that had made them kings.
No Leicester player stood out because all played well. Islam Slimani scored the winning goal but the display of his Algerian compatriot Riyad Mahrez was equally notable given that the latter's previous performances had fallen so far below the level that earned him the Premier League player of the year crown last season that he had been dropped for the last home match.
Here, although he did not quite reach the heights of last term, he responded in the way Ranieri had hoped. Deployed just behind Slimani, Mahrez gave flickers of his brilliance, justifying the decision to assign him a central role rather than a wide berth.
"It was important to change something because now all the world is waiting for Riyad on the left or right to come inside, we have to improve how we find him between the lines," explained Ranieri.
It took only 63 seconds for Mahrez to show he was on song. But Darren Randolph prevented him opening the scoring by tipping his half-volley just over the bar.
West Ham could not match Leicester's early slickness. Marc Albrighton and Demarai Gray were excellent out wide, ensuring a regular supply of crosses. Slimani met one from Albrighton in the fourth minute but the striker's header rebounded out off the post. A similar move in the 20th minute produced the breakthrough. Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater launched the attack before Albrighton delivered another delicious cross and Slimani headed powerfully into the net.
"They deserved the goal, it was a combination of their aggression and our sloppiness," said Slaven Bilic.
West Ham soon got up to speed with their hosts. Leicester were lucky in the 41st minute when Michail Antonio's shot cannoned out off the crossbar. The chance had been created by Aaron Cresswell, whose raids down the left were becoming a nuisance. But they were not the only source of bother for Leicester - Simpson and Daniel Amartey had thrown themselves in front of shots by Antonio and Andre Ayew just before that, and Kasper Schmeichel had made a fine save to foil Dimitri Payet.
West Ham exerted strong pressure in the second half. Schmeichel made a high-class save on the hour to paw away a deflected shot by Cresswell. With the visitors on top, Ranieri replaced Mahrez with Christian Fuchs in an attempt to reinforce his team's solidity.
It worked. For the last stages of a helter-skelter contest that was generally clean despite being strewn with eight yellow cards, West Ham were for the most part kept out. An Andy Carroll header into the side netting was the closest they came. Leicester, indeed, ended the game on the attack and Carroll's last significant touch was a block that prevented Chilwell from making it 2-0.
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