Monday 19 March 2018

Vardy and Mahrez leave Chelsea reeling

Leicester City 2 Chelsea 1

Jamie Vardy gets to the ball ahead of Kurt Zouma to put Leicester ahead against Chelsea
Jamie Vardy gets to the ball ahead of Kurt Zouma to put Leicester ahead against Chelsea
Riyad Mahrez scores the second goal for Leicester
Leicester's Danny Simpson in action with Chelsea's Pedro

Mark Ogden

Perhaps the time has come to think the unthinkable. Leicester City might just sustain their title challenge and Jose Mourinho could be out of a job by Christmas.

There comes a point when what appear to be freak circumstances become the norm and Leicester's credentials as potential Premier League champions can no longer be dismissed after Claudio Ranieri's players moved to the top of the table by dismantling Chelsea.

Jamie Vardy's 15th goal in 16 league games, followed by a Riyad Mahrez wonder goal, left Chelsea - champions in May - hovering just one point above the relegation zone.

Leicester were immense, their football pulsating, and they completely outplayed Mourinho's team to the extent that the visitors appeared to have downed tools for the Special One. When that happens, a manager is always on borrowed time and even Mourinho cannot be safe now. The clock is ticking.

Despite responding to the 1-0 home defeat against Bournemouth with a decisive Champions League victory against Porto, Chelsea arrived at the King Power Stadium with their Premier League form continuing to be the issue most likely to curtail Mourinho's time in charge.

The champions have been a fractured outfit all season, losing 10 games in all competitions prior to this fixture, and their demeanour was nervous rather than determined from the outset.


Eden Hazard's disappearance down the tunnel after half an hour, with an apparent injury caused by an innocuous challenge by Vardy, was one of those moments when desire could legitimately be questioned.

Having been asked to return to the field by Mourinho following treatment, the Belgian (pictured) took one look at the ball and made it clear he could not continue. Tests may yet reveal a genuine problem, but the challenge certainly did not suggest that Hazard had suffered a serious injury.

Up to that point, last season's double Footballer of the Year had been on the periphery, just like most of his team-mates, as Leicester attempted to expose the cracks in Chelsea's facade.

The gulf in confidence and belief between the two teams was clear. Leicester had lost just one league game in 19 outings since a 3-1 defeat here by Chelsea last April and they began the evening 17 points clear of the faltering champions.

At this stage last season, Chelsea were top with 39 points while Leicester were anchored to the foot of the Premier League with just 10 points, seemingly destined for relegation in their first campaign back in the top flight.

But the miraculous escape under Nigel Pearson has now been proven to be no fluke under Ranieri, who has added flair and style to a team deservedly riding high among the supposed Premier League superpowers.

Leicester's self-belief helped them dominate the early stages, with Vardy's pace and Mahrez's trickery causing consternation at the back for the champions.

The loss to injury of the impressive Danny Drinkwater, to a hamstring strain, should have given Chelsea encouragement, given the midfielder's importance to the home side, but they could not capitalise and Leicester deservedly took the lead when Vardy extended his incredible scoring run on 34 minutes.

It was Mahrez's cross from the right which opened Chelsea up, with John Terry and Kurt Zouma inexplicably allowing Vardy to run between them to flick the ball past Thibaut Courtois with his right boot. Vardy wheeled away, arms outstretched in his now familiar celebratory pose, while Terry, Zouma and Courtois exchanged glares and shrugs as they attempted to apportion the blame.

Having taunted Chelsea's visiting supporters with chants of "You're going down with the Villa", the Leicester fans then mirrored the confidence of their heroes by singing their belief that they will "win the Premier League".

Early days yet, but perhaps those Buddhist monks who sprinkled holy water in the dressing room to bring Ranieri's team luck are on to something.

Having edged ahead, Leicester emerged in the second half determined to force Chelsea back and Vardy's heavy challenge on Costa certainly served noticed of their intent.

Vardy won the ball, but it was a reckless challenge, one which left Costa floored before the Chelsea forward jumped to his feet to go head-to-head with the England striker.

Referee Mark Clattenburg booked Vardy for the challenge, but the card was worth it in the sense that it banished any sense Chelsea may have had that their opponents would take a backwards step.

That was a moment of street-fighting, of getting retaliation in first, but Leicester's second goal two minutes later was a different matter entirely.

It was a thing of sheer beauty, with Mahrez making a fool of César Azpilicueta with a tremendous piece of skill before curling a sumptuous left-foot strike beyond Courtois.

The Chelsea goalkeeper was at fault for gifting Leicester possession with a poor clearance which was intercepted by Andy King, but Marc Albrighton still had to deliver a pinpoint cross before Mahrez added the killer touch with one of those shimmies which would have left Azpilicueta with twisted blood.

Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore, watching from the directors' box, would have relished the latest showcasing of the top flight's ability to entertain. Leicester have clearly been good for business.

Vardy, Mahrez and Ranieri have all dazzled this season, so it was apt that they conspired to plunge Chelsea deeper into darkness. Other than a brief flourish on the hour, when Pedro, Costa and Azpilicueta all went close inside two minutes, Chelsea offered nothing until Loic Remy headed in Pedro's cross on 77 minutes.

It was merely the twitching of a corpse, but the nails are ready to be hammered into the coffin and it would be ironic if the final blow proves to be delivered by Ranieri, the man who made way for Mourinho way back in 2004. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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