North London primed for Fox hunt
Can Leicester complete their amazing journey with Premier League title glory?
Leicester City are just six wins away from Premier League title glory, but how will Claudio Ranieri’s men cope with the pressure in the next few weeks?
With seven games to go and a five-point cushion to their closest rivals Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester are in complete control of their own destiny, having ground out 1-0 wins against Watford, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace in their last three Premier League matches.
Arsenal are not out of it yet, although the 11 points they have to make up on Leicester may prove too much for Arsène Wenger’s side, who have a game in hand over table-toppers Leicester.
Can Leicester hold on, or will one of the two North London clubs pip them to the title?
Leicester’s amazing story is now a familiar one. Bottom of the Premier League a little over a year ago, a remarkable run of form in the closing weeks of last season ensured their dramatic survival.
The appointment of Ranieri as the successor to Nigel Pearson raised eyebrows, but the Tinkerman has proven to be an inspired choice, while he has also belied his old nickname by typically naming the same starting XI when injuries and suspensions allow him to do so.
Ranieri has been a calming presence so far but the Italian has been involved in a title race six times in his career without ever managing to win a championship.
A lack of title-winning experience is clear in the Leicester team too. Robert Huth won two Premier League titles at Chelsea but the German centre-back was a bit-part player. Gökhan Inler has won a Swiss league title but is usually on Leicester’s bench. The same point is true for Spurs, though.
However, the spine of Leicester’s side, including Kasper Schmeichel, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, were all at the club when they won the Championship title under Pearson two years ago – so they can draw on that experience, at least.
A benefit is also the lack of title experience in Leicester’s rivals. It is over 50 years since Spurs won the league, while Wenger’s last championship came 12 years ago. The situation is vastly different to when Sir Alex Ferguson’s Manchester United, a team packed with serial winners, ruthlessly hunted down Kevin Keegan’s inexperienced Newcastle United outfit in 1995-1996.
The fixture list has also been kind to Leicester. Four of their last seven games are at the King Power Stadium and their only away trip in their next four fixtures is away at Sunderland.
Leicester have none of the current top four left to play, although West Ham at home could be tough. Leicester’s last two away games are at Manchester United and Chelsea, but Ranieri’s side could be almost confirmed Premier League champions by then.
Mahrez is Leicester’s key fantasy player, with the Algerian having scored the winner in two of Leicester’s last three matches, while Schmeichel has kept three successive clean sheets.
In a way, the progress being made at Spurs under Mauricio Pochettino is almost as amazing as the work Ranieri has done at Leicester.
Having perennially missed out on the top four in recent years, Pochettino has drastically cut his squad by ditching the deadwood, while continuing to promote and develop young talent.
The result is a hungry side with quality cover for most positions, although if star striker Harry Kane was to get injured Spurs would find it difficult to replace the England international.
Kane was labelled as a one-season wonder by some pundits after his excellent breakthrough year, but with 21 goals in the Premier League the 22-year-old is the top scorer in the division.
More importantly, Kane is coming into form at a key time for his side. Kane has hit four goals in his last two matches, while his counterpart Vardy has not scored in his last five appearances.
Pochettino was criticised for naming a weakened side in Spurs’ Europa League tie at Borussia Dortmund, but exiting that competition leaves the club able to focus solely on the title race.
Fantasy football favourite Kane has grabbed the headlines but Spurs have star performers all over the pitch. Dele Alli – still just 19 – has been terrific, forging a brilliant connection with Kane, while his seven goals and nine assists in the league are an outstanding return for a teenager.
Summer signing Toby Alderweireld has developed a great defensive partnership with fellow Belgium international Jan Vertonghen at the back, while captain Hugo Lloris is one of the most reliable goalkeepers in the league.
Perhaps Pochettino’s biggest accomplishment at White Hart Lane has been the reintegration of talented midfielder Mousa Dembélé. The 28-year-old looked likely to leave the club a year ago but has been moulded by his manager into one of the Premier League’s finest all-rounders.
Spurs face Liverpool and Manchester United in their next two games. Their match against Liverpool after the international break in GW32 is a day before Leicester’s, but Pochettino’s men will then be chasing, with Leicester playing first four GWs in a row. That could well be key.
Arsenal’s odds to win the title have drifted out to 6/1 as Wenger’s men have won just three of their last 10 Premier League fixtures.
Realistically, Arsenal must win all of their last eight games to have a chance of catching Leicester. They are not guaranteed a top-four place yet, with only a five-point gap to fifth-placed West Ham.
A maximum 24-point haul would put Arsenal on 79 points, 13 ahead of Leicester’s current 66. Manchester United won the league with 75 points in 1996/97 and nobody has ever lifted the Premier League title with a lower points total.
Wenger’s main problem is that his attackers all seem to have lost form at the same time. Olivier Giroud has not scored in the league since January 13th, Alexis Sánchez has scored one league goal since October and, while Mesut Özil has a superb 18 league assists, he has none in three games. Danny Welbeck has scored four goals since returning from injury, but it is not enough.
Arsenal have a reputation for collapsing under pressure and it seems unlikely they could mount a late charge to stop Leicester. However, they do have players worthy of considering for daily fantasy football teams, such as right-back Héctor Bellerín, who has three assists in two games.