Saturday 24 March 2018

Tale of two Cities brings happy ending for surprise leaders

Jamie Vardy has been a focal point in Leicester's counter-attacking game Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire
Jamie Vardy has been a focal point in Leicester's counter-attacking game Photo: Nigel French/PA Wire

Paul Wilson

It had been suggested beforehand that Leicester's pace and precision might find reward against Manchester City's somewhat ponderous central defence, though it was envisaged Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez might do the damage. Instead it was the unlikely figure of Robert Huth who turned out to be the two-goal hero as Claudio Ranieri's team passed their greatest test to extend their lead at the top of the Premier League.

The big defender nipped in ahead of Martín Demichelis to give the visitors a third-minute lead, and the best possible start, as Manchester City failed to defend the first set-piece of the afternoon. Mahrez had set up the opportunity, in fairness, drawing a foul from Aleksandar Kolarov with a run down the right and taking the free-kick himself. The home side might have been expecting a high cross but got a low one, and Huth simply reacted quickest to get a foot to the ball on the six-yard line, even if a ricochet off the defender was the final touch. Goal of the season contender it wasn't, but it was a dream start for Leicester, and one that helped them stick to the gameplan that has proved so effective this season.

There is nothing complicated about what Leicester do, they simply stay compact and deep in defence and try to hit Vardy upfield on the counter. Once City were obliged to chase an equaliser and leave gaps at the back, it played into Leicester's hands, at times excessively so, for on a few occasions in the first half the visitors were turning over a dangerous amount of possession.

Constantly inviting the likes of David Silva and Raheem Sterling to carry the ball into the final third does not seem the most sensible of strategies, but Manchester City were short of ideas and invention and Leicester got away with it. The best chance Manchester City managed to create came right at the end of the first half, when Sergio Agüero rolled a cross right across the face of an unprotected goal, with no one available to tap it in.

The game was still in the balance while there was only a single goal in it, and it seemed likely that if Leicester persisted in trying to soak up whatever their opponents could throw at them, their title rivals would at some point get back on terms in the second half. So Leicester just repeated what they had done in the first half and scored another early goal, just two minutes after the restart, and this time there was nothing scrappy about it.

Using Vardy in the centre as a decoy, Mahrez ran at the home defence and ended up beating almost the entire back four before blasting past Joe Hart with a confident finish. Pablo Zabaleta lost possession high up the field on Leicester's left, Nicolás Otamendi sold himself too easily by going to ground without managing to dispossess the ball carrier, an elegant feint took Demichelis out of the equation and by the time Kolarov came across from the right to attempt a challenge, it was too late to prevent the shot.

It might not have been as jaw-dropping at Vardy's effort against Liverpool last week, but it was a goal elegant enough to light up any game and it prevented any accusations Leicester had merely rode their luck after taking an early lead.

Manuel Pellegrini made a double substitution in response, withdrawing the ineffective Yaya Touré and the labouring Fabian Delph, yet while Fernando did manage to bring a smart save from Kasper Schmeichel with a close-range header, Leicester went another goal in front before any tactical adjustment could take effect. It was another from Huth at another set-piece, this time a simple matter of rising higher than the home defenders and nodding Christian Fuchs' deep corner back over the head of a powerless Hart, though that bald description does scant justice to the part Vardy played in winning the corner. Flicking the ball beyond the home defence and accelerating into the penalty area to reach it, Vardy proved capable of terrorising City with his pace after all. He was unlucky not to score in the second half, on one occasion being foiled by Hart's prompt action in coming off his line to block, then putting a header just wide from a corner and finally finding the side-netting with a shot from a tight angle.

If it had been all Manchester City in the first half, it was all Leicester City in the second. If the final scoreline was a surprise, there was nothing inexplicable about it. Manchester City had struggled to create chances when they had a mountain of possession, largely through the hard work of the indefatigable Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kanté in closing them down. Agüero did grab a headed goal back right at the end, but you would be hard pressed to work out how that afforded Manchester City any sort of consolation. They had been outplayed and out-thought by opponents who do the important things in football. Defend when necessary, and score goals when possible.


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