It was a weekend of tears. First, Claudio Ranieri got a little moist-eyed after guiding Leicester City to a fifth straight victory that takes them to within nine points of the Premier League title. And then half-an-hour later than scheduled, the away end inside White Hart Lane threatened to flood north London.
Leicester’s mild vexation at watching Tottenham Hotspur close the gap on them at the summit to seven points, courtesy of an emphatic 3-0 defeat of Manchester United, was tempered considerably by the fact the result means they are guaranteed a place in next season’s UEFA Champions League. Bigger fish are waiting to be fried.
Manchester United arrived late for their game with Spurs after an eight-mile journey from the hotel to the stadium took two hours. It was a measure of their performance once they got there that the coach driver was named as the club’s official man of the match.
A little foresight might have predicted that capital traffic can get a tad congested when 36,000-plus people all head in the same direction at once, but on a day when United employed Ashley Young as a centre-forward and Anthony Martial on the wing and Jesse Lingard as a No. 10 while Juan Mata was on the right, it all seemed part of a grander plan not to be questioned.
In any case, to take a harpoon to Louis van Gaal without having first bathed in the glorious glow that is Leicester City closing in on a first league title in their 132-year history seems churlish in the extreme. Shooting whales in barrels has its place; it’s just that place is usually about eight miles behind saluting one of sport’s truly great stories.
As a spectacle, for over an hour, Leicester’s 2-0 win at Sunderland was a great advert for increased trading hours on Sundays. Yet still, when the camera panned to Ranieri welling up at full-time after saluting Leicester’s travelling faithful, it was remarkable how many people watching across the globe simultaneously got something in their eye. Bloody onions.
Let’s get the boring maths bit out of the way: Working on the basis Tottenham pick up maximum points from their final five matches, they would finish the season on 80 points. Leicester have 72, which means they require a further three victories to be mathematically certain of the title. In this scenario, the earliest Wes Morgan can get his hands on the Premier League trophy would be the away game at Manchester United on May 1, providing they beat West Ham United and Swansea City in their next two matches, both of which are at home.
It’s probably worth noting Leicester are the Premier League’s form side. Amid the perpetual talk of slip-ups that has been played on a loop over the past few months, Leicester are on a five-game winning run without conceding a goal. Of their last 13 games, they have won 10, drawn two and lost just once. That’s 32 points from a possible 39. Morgan will be swigging champagne from the Premier League’s lid while Leicester’s detractors will still be hammering alternative scenarios into calculators.
The Foxes always looked controlled, if a little leggy, on Sunday. Sunderland’s afternoon was best summed up in the second half when the hapless Fabio Borini somehow contrived to kick the ball into his own face when presented with a goalscoring opportunity.
If Sam Allardyce took the Italian to The Supervet, the only thing he’d be offered would be a sad smile and a hand on his shoulder. There’s no chance Borini would return to Wearside with wheels for feet. It’s past that. Sorry, Sunderland supporters.
For understandable, if entirely different, reasons, both sides were panicky from the start. No doping was reported from the Stadium of Light, but a course of beta-blockers would probably have improved performances all-round.
To think when the two sides met on the opening day of the season, in a game Leicester won 4-2, both clubs were 5,000-1 to win the Premier League title. By the end of Sunday’s game, 45 points and 17 places separated them.
The first half consisted almost entirely of clearances. In terms of aesthetics, it was a breeze block of a game.
Shinji Okazaki should have had a penalty when DeAndre Yedlin made contact with his chest rather than the ball, while Sunderland wanted one after Robert Huth’s hand brushed the ball as he made a low block. In the words of Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness: "It looked like a Championship game."
The Scot really endeared himself to Leicester supporters over the weekend.
Branislav Ivanovic wasn't the only person to email the Sunday Times to ask whether there had been a printing error in Souness' team of the season.
There was nothing Championship-like about Leicester’s opener on 65 minutes. Well, perhaps Younes Kaboul’s defending and maybe Vito Mannone’s goalkeeping, but it was otherwise glorious.
Danny Drinkwater was a dominant presence in the game’s midfield all afternoon, and when he turned Lee Cattermole with a lovely deft touch, there was only one thing on his mind. Jamie Vardy had already set off as Drinkwater found him with a long, straight pass that should be put behind glass in a museum. Kaboul certainly stopped in his tracks to admire it as the ball drifted over his head on to the toe of Vardy.
As all great goalkeepers do, Mannone made himself as small as possible to allow Vardy to coolly slot past him at his far post. A barren run of six league games without a goal was vanquished. In the process, Vardy became the first Leicester player since Gary Lineker in 1984/85 to hit 20 goals in the top division.
Sunderland substitute Jack Rodwell is probably still doing press-ups as punishment for the rank profligacy he demonstrated when scooping over from no more than six yards late on. Other than that one heart-in-mouth moment, though, Leicester were not penned back at any point.
What has been remarkable about how Leicester have ground out results of late, without always being at their best, is how comfortably they have done it.
The Foxes last conceded a goal on March 1 and have kept 11 clean sheets in their past 15 matches. That’s Arsenal-under-George Graham defending. Flair got them to the top; grit will keep them there.
For David Seaman, Lee Dixon, Steve Bould, Tony Adams and Nigel Winterburn, read: Kasper Schmeichel, Danny Simpson, Huth, Morgan and Christian Fuchs. There’s more chance of David Cameron stepping out in a Panama hat over the next few weeks than Leicester conceding a soft goal.
Even when ahead, Ranieri’s side conjured the best chances. It was no surprise when they extended their lead in added time, as Vardy made it 21 league goals for the season.
In recent weeks, Demarai Gray, despite his tender years, has proved to be incredibly adept at killing time when coming on for Leicester as a late substitute. After replacing Riyad Mahrez, who looks faded to the point he may have to appear as a hologram against West Ham, Gray brought down a lofted clearance dead before playing in Vardy on the halfway line.
The England man did the rest as he beat Patrick van Aanholt for both power and pace before nudging the ball past Mannone and tapping into an empty goal.
By the time he addressed the media, Ranieri had composed himself and stuck true to his season-long rhetoric of taking one match at a time:
We have the Champions League on the table now, nothing more. Of course, this is an amazing season for us, our chairman, for everybody.
But it is important we keep our focus, our concentration is on the match. It is important we won today, but we have difficult matches against West Ham and Swansea.
Our goal was be safe and that was okay. The next I said, "arrive in the Europa League" and it is done. Now we have the Champions League very close to us. Now I say, "come on, keep going".
In his pre-match press conference, Allardyce again reiterated his sympathy for former Leicester boss Nigel Pearson.
At full-time, after launching into a polemic about the band the Beatles could have been had they kept Pete Best on drums, he somewhat uncharitably spoke of how Leicester are, per the Independent, "unique in that they don’t have to be pretty and play in a certain way" before adding "fans at bigger clubs might moan about them playing the 'right type' of football."
There’s not a fan in the country who would moan at having to watch Leicester City every week this season. In fact, the only person moaning about Leicester is you, Sam.
All Leicester have to do to prove it is win three more matches between now and May 15.
Rampant Spurs Bowl Over Wretched Reds
These are heady times for Tottenham and harrowing for Manchester United. Few doubted Spurs' capability of inflicting on United a first defeat at White Lane in 15 seasons, yet the manner in which they did so said much about the different paths on which the two clubs are travelling.
Mauricio Pochettino went into the game winless in six matches against United. His Spurs side had failed to even score in the three previous fixtures between the two clubs he had overseen. United's supporters, board and players must have looked at the respective benches and quietly wept inside.
Tottenham are the side Manchester United might have become had Ed Woodward shown even a smidgen of either foresight or imagination in his appointments post-Sir Alex Ferguson.
Anything other than a Tottenham victory on Sunday surely would have been the death knell of their title aspirations. As it is, they will almost certainly have to win each of their remaining five matches to stand any chance of catching Leicester. That would be enough if the Foxes take eight points or fewer from their remaining matches. A favourable goal difference to Ranieri's side is cause for minor optimism.
Over five minutes and 46 seconds in the second half, between the 70th and 76th minutes, Spurs were as stunning as Manchester United were wretched. Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld and Erik Lamela were each in turn allowed to beat David De Gea, as United capitulated when their one outstanding performer, Timothy Fosu-Mensah, left the action injured.
As a microcosm of where Van Gaal's side are at, it was depressingly telling. Manchester United could not cope for 22 second-half minutes without an 18-year-old right-back, who was making just his second Premier League start. To be fair, a quarter of a billion doesn't buy you much in reserve these days.
For many, Sunday was a new low.
Alli and Lamela's goals, both thrilling constructed, came via deliveries from the side vacated by Fosu-Mensah. His replacement, Matteo Darmian, also rashly conceded the free-kick that culminated in Alderweireld's deft header, which arrived between Alli and Lamela's smart low finishes. The Italian full-back spent his Sunday comforting a teary-eyed Allardyce at the vets. His own fate is unknown.
It could have been so much worse for a United side that registered just one shot on target over the course of 90 minutes, when Martial drew a save from Hugo Lloris after a slalom run inside from the left. Had Spurs scored five or six without reply, United could have had few complaints.
Per the Manchester Evening News, after the game, Van Gaal appeared to be quietly content with his side's application—that to be in the game for 70 minutes was a fair effort. Jose Mourinho is waiting by the phone wearing a full United strip.
In the company of the new wave of dynamic young coaches—Pochettino, Jurgen Klopp, Eddie Howe et al.—Van Gaal looks about as comfortable as the father of the bride at the stag do of the groom. Pep Guardiola's arrival in Manchester over the summer will only exacerbate the feeling that the Dutchman is badly out of step with his contemporaries.
Manchester United trail Leicester City by 19 points. Even Woodward will struggle to put a positive spin on that.
Carroll Bullies Arsenal and Brushes Up on His French
If ever Arsenal were to bury a time capsule in the foundations of the Emirates Stadium, a copy of Saturday’s draw with West Ham United amid the historic cache would be an invaluable tool for historians.
It would be of particular interest to those specialising in Arsenal post-2004, the year of their last league title. In equal parts beguiling and bewildering, they somehow contrived to leave Upton Park both grateful and disappointed to have taken a point in a 3-3 draw that ultimately sufficed for neither side.
Arsenal are the most complex of beasts. They were underdone by one of such unrefined brutal simplicity few would bat an eyelid were he to take to the field in just a loincloth, carrying the severed head of a bloodied centre-half in one hand and a McDonald's in the other.
It was hard to watch Andy Carroll bully Arsenal from first to last to score a hat-trick and not recall childhood memories of Dennis the Menace tormenting Walter the Softy. Arsene Wenger complained to the fourth official at one point of having been struck by an unidentified object, launched from a peashooter.
It wasn’t his only complaint. The Frenchman and his band of less-than-merry men returned to the sanctuary of north London grumbling about their tormentor-in-chief twice being given the benefit of the doubt by referee Craig Pawson.
Staying true to his somewhat agricultural style, Carroll scythed down Laurent Koscielny on just four minutes. A clement Pawson reached for a yellow card, when more a melodramatic official may have flourished a red. A playful club to the face of Gabriel Paulista between his second and third goals went unpunished altogether.
As culture clashes go, this was akin to a vegan society booking the same venue for a Christmas party as a group of abattoir workers. Arsenal’s defenders must secretly lust after a hearty forward of their own, as vegans do a
bacon sandwich plant-based smoothie.
Wenger attempted to negate Carroll’s aerial threat by employing zonal marking. It’s akin to trying to cushion the fall of a rhino thrown from the top floor of the Empire State Building using a fireman’s blanket made from toilet roll.
All afternoon, Arsenal’s centre-halves, Koscielny and Gabriel, staged an impromptu two-man production of It’s That Man Again whenever Carroll loomed into view. Morphing into the radio show’s over-polite handymen, they shrilled "After you, Claude. No. After you, Cecil" each time the ball was tossed into the box. If Arsenal had either Morgan or Huth at their disposal, they probably would have won 3-0.
Either would likely have taken control of the situation that led to West Ham's third goal being a straight aerial duel between Carroll and Hector Bellerin. Suffice to say, the Spaniard's attempt to stand up to the class bully wasn't a massive success.
Carroll's hat-trick must have given England manager Roy Hodgson food for thought. When fit, and Slaven Bilic's comments post-match suggested he could perhaps be doing more to help himself in this regard, there isn't a better header of a ball in the Premier League. He's arguably unmatched across the whole of Europe.
"He’s got to do something," Bilic said, per the Daily Mirror. "As a medical team, as a club we’re doing everything, so he’s got to do something. He’s doing it but he should be even more dedicated to stay away from those injuries for a few years."
Koscielny will line up at centre-half for one of the tournament favourites, France, at UEFA Euro 2016. He won't be the only European stopper breathing a sigh of relief should England deem Carroll surplus to requirements by England.
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