Leicester’s stunning win at Manchester City should dispel what doubts remained over their title credentials and refreshingly straightforward style.
Such has been the disbelief surrounding their season so far, it was always going to take something special for Leicester to be taken seriously as title challengers. One of the most accomplished away performances the Premier League has seen must surely now have achieved that.
Not only are Claudio Ranieri’s side genuine challengers, they are now 7/4 favourites, only a couple of hours after the bookies priced them at 5/1 to win on the day at Manchester City.
The Etihad was venue where reality was supposed to bite. “Let them have their moment,” said Glenn Hoddle as the Foxes fans sang: “We’re gonna win the league!”
After a stunning 3-1 win, Hoddle will now struggle to build a case against the visiting supporters’ proclamations. Leicester have proved on numerous occasions now that they are fully equipped to maintain their form, but their confirmation as credible championship contenders, for those of us who needed it, arrived today.
This was no smash and grab job. City were lucky to get away with a two-goal deficit, having spent the majority of the afternoon in a daze while the visitors outclassed them in every department.
Like the 25 games that have gone before, there was nothing complicated in Leicester’s approach – and that is meant as a compliment. Claudio Ranieri used to be known as the Tinkerman but the Italian has been anything but this season.
Going to the Etihad, so many coaches would have altered their shape and system in the face of City’s multi-faceted attack. Not Ranieri. In fact, it was Pellegrini who meddled, using Fabian Delph in front of Aleksandar Kolarov to subdue the threat of Riyad Mahrez. That plan was blown to bits within three minutes of the start of either half.
Unsurprisingly given Ranieri’s heritage, his weapon of choice has been a wonderfully traditional 4-4-2. The units of pairs and threes around the pitch make Leicester a solid defensive unit and a devastating attacking force. Throw in the individual brilliance of Mahrez and Vardy’s lethal finishing and it becomes clear why the Foxes are where they are.
But the victory over City, though, again showed that Leicester are so much more than their flying forwards. Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante, unlike so many central midfielders, are not kept on a leash by the centre-halves behind them and they covered every blade of sodden grass at the Etihad, dovetailing each other brilliantly. The tone was set early on when Kante thundered through Yaya Toure and it was no surprise to see the Ivorian gladly jog off when he was hooked only six minutes into the second half, after his side had gone 2-0 down.
Behind Drinkwater and Kante, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth appear to be developing an unlikely partnership to rival the likes of Bould and Adams, and Vidic and Ferdinand, certainly in terms of effectiveness, if not longevity. Vardy and Mahrez hog the headlines, understandably, but the pair of 30-somethings at the heart of Ranieri’s back four must take equal credit, having conceded only two goals in their last seven games – a run that has seen them face Liverpool, Tottenham and City twice.
Huth even outshone his attacking team-mates in the opposition box at the Etihad. His opener after three minutes was cleverly worked, with three Foxes around the wide free-kick to drag an extra body out of the City box to open up an alley for Mahrez to thread the ball through to the big German at the near post. His second, meeting another set-piece to loop a header into the top corner, highlighted the superior strength and desire the visitors displayed in comparison to their shoddy hosts.
Ranieri can simply afford now to set the auto-pilot. Another test comes next week at Arsenal, but the blueprint for a positive result at the Emirates has been on public view for weeks now. The bait will be laid for Arsenal, just as it was for City today and Liverpool last Tuesday, and the Gunners will attack much in the same way – playing straight into Ranieri’s hands.
With a fixture list free of distraction and team spirit perhaps unrivalled in the Premier League, those of us who doubted Leicester before today must surely now be believers. Coping with the tag of favourites presents a new challenge to Leicester but the Foxes have dodged every trap set for them so far.
This was supposed to be the beginning of the end for Leicester. On the contrary. More and more it appears we really are in the middle of the most sensational story in Premier League history.