Tuesday 12 December 2017

Red-hot Ulloa makes light of Vardy absence

Leicester City 4 Swansea City 0

Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski saves from Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Swansea’s Lukasz Fabianski saves from Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Photo: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images via Reuters
Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez applauds the fans after the final whistle. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire
Leicester City's Daniel Drinkwater and Swansea City's Ashley Williams. Photo: Martin Rickett/PA Wire.

Mark Ogden

The question marks over Leicester City's title credentials are disappearing fast and so, now, are Tottenham Hotspur's hopes of catching Claudio Ranieri's team after Leonardo Ulloa proved the leaders can win without Jamie Vardy.

Mission Impossible is now within touching distance of being completed by a team who only won promotion to the top flight two years ago.

If Swansea City were supposed to provide a twist in the final chapter of this incredible Premier League season by frustrating Leicester at the King Power Stadium, they emphatically failed to read the script as Claudio Ranieri's team once again shrugged off the pressures of the run-in by coasting to victory, serenaded by fans chanting '4-0 to the one-man team.'


El Ciclon - the Cyclone - was the nickname for Ulloa from his time in Spain and the 29-year-old Argentinian blew away an admittedly powder-puff Swansea side who looked not just on the beach but playing as if wearing flip-flops as well.

Five more points will secure Leicester's first league title, and they could even be confirmed as champions with a win at Manchester United next Sunday if Tottenham fail to defeat West Brom at White Hart Lane tonight.

Spurs showed at Stoke last Monday that they will fight until the death for the title, but while Leicester may lack their rivals' flair and cavalier spirit, they possess that priceless ability to win when it matters.

Tottenham fans chanted 'Leicester City, We're coming for you,' as they routed Stoke at the Britannia, but the response from a raucous King Power Stadium was emphatic - 'Tottenham Hotspur, we are waiting for you,' sang the home fans.

On this evidence, they will be waiting a while because Leicester now seem destined to be crowned champions.

With Vardy suspended - the England forward may also yet miss next Sunday's trip to Old Trafford depending on the outcome of his personal hearing into an improper conduct charge in midweek - Ranieri was expected to make a straightforward swap by selecting Ulloa in place of his top scorer.

But while Ulloa did indeed take his place in the starting 11, Ranieri sprung a surprise by selecting Jeffrey Schlupp ahead of Marc Alrbighton on the left of midfield.

In a team of unheralded stars, Albrighton has been one of the most under-appreciated outside the King Power Stadium, but Ranieri's logic was smart.

Schlupp's pace, rather than Albrighton's endeavour, would help alleviate the loss of Vardy's ability to stretch the play and the tactical tweak paid off, with the Ghana international fully justifying his selection with an outstanding performance.

He epitomised the Leicester spirit by slotting into a job and doing it as though he had been there all season, but this was a day when the home team's incredible work ethic and collective unity came to the fore to overcome a meek Swansea side.

Francesco Guidolin's players began the game brightly enough, perhaps energised by their exaggerated pre-match huddle, but their efforts did not last long.

Once Mahrez had opened the scoring on ten minutes, there was only going to be one winner and it was not the team from south Wales.

Mahrez, the inspiration behind Leicester's title challenge, has endured a quiet spell in recent weeks, but with Vardy absent, the Algerian stepped up to the plate when it mattered.

His tenacity saw him chase down Ashley Williams and the force the Swansea captain into a loose pass which hit Mahrez it the midriff before he burst into the penalty area with the ball.

Faced with a recovering Williams and goalkeeper Lukasz Fabianski, Mahrez still had plenty to do, but rather than guide the ball into the far corner, he disguised his shot and calmly passed the ball inside the near post.

In the circumstances, it was a goal of audacious quality and iron nerve and it sparked the home crowd into the noise which was sustained for the remainder of the game.

Title run-ins are usually accompanied by stadiums full of fans tied up by agonising tension, but not at Leicester, where the home supporters have repeatedly been Ranieri's 12th man.

With Mahrez and Schlupp hurting Swansea down both flanks and Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante controlling midfield, it was one-way traffic and a matter of time before Leicester increased their lead.

Christian Fuchs saw a volley saved before Shinji Okazaki had a shot deflected behind, but the second goal came on the half hour.

Ulloa has scored crucial late goals in recent weeks against Norwich and West Ham, but this one was much earlier, if no less important.


It was also simple. Drinkwater's free-kick picked out the former Brighton forward in the six-yard box and he rose above the Swansea defence to head home for 2-0.

This was all so easy for Leicester. Swansea were putting up little resistance, but Leicester were also chasing down every ball, so their dominance was earned.

They had to wait until the hour mark for their third goal, though, and it came once again from their Argentinian striker.

Schlupp made the goal, having ghosted past defender Federico Fernandez before crossing at the second attempt for Ulloa to tap in at the far post.

But just to turn the screw even tighter on Spurs, Leicester added a fourth on 85 minutes when substitute Demarai Gray made a fool of Williams down the right with his pace before crossing to Andy King, who headed the ball back to him. Gray's first-time shot was beaten out by Fabianski but only to Albrighton, who drilled the ball high into the net.

So much for the question marks over their ability to withstand the title pressure without Vardy, who watched the game from his executive box.

Leicester are on cruise control and they may even be beginning to accept that at White Hart Lane. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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