Leicester City’s Nerves Begin To Show
After about an hour had been played at The King Power Stadium this evening, the nerves began to set in. Shinji Okazaki had scored a spectacular overhead kick after twenty-five minutes to give Leicester City the lead against Newcastle United, but in the fifteen minutes after the interval it started to feel increasingly as if the half-time words of new manager Rafael Benitez might have begun to filter through to his players. Passes started to go a little astray. The crowd, having at first turned the volume level up a notch in an attempt to give their team a lift, started to quieten as the jitters began to set in. It was going to be a long half hour for all associated with the story of the 2015/16 season.
It hadn’t been so long ago that this match was due to be something approaching a walkover for Leicester City. A rudderless Newcastle United were flailing near the bottom of the Premier League table under Steve McClaren, having been beaten comprehensively at home by AFC Bournemouth in their last match. Finally, though, the club decided to make its big change, and the change that it made couldn’t have been a more surprising one. Barely two months ago, Rafael Benitez was the manager of Real Madrid, one of the biggest, grandest football clubs on the entire planet. And now he’d been tempted to Tyneside to head a last-ditch attempt to avoid relegation from the Premier League at the end of this season.
Some critics stated that changing the manager was to little, too late for Newcastle United. After all, the players remained the same in spite of the managerial change and it had been they who had been found wanting on so many occasions this season. And surely the four days between his appointment and his first fixture in charge of the club wouldn’t be enough to effect the sort of change that would make getting a result away to the team at the top of the table would be too tall an order. There were plenty of the opinion that Benitez might be able to turn things around over the course of the last ten games of Newcastle United’s season, but surely this one match would be a stretch too far, wouldn’t it?
The counterpoints to these arguments were clear enough. Benitez might have been found wanting in the end in the crazy crucible of the Bernabeu, where even winning isn’t necessarily enough to guarantee a manager’s safety, but he has built his reputation as a coach on meticulous preparation. If there were any coaches with the ability to unpick the conundrum that Leicester City have become over the course of this season, then Benitez certainly had it within his skill-set. On top of that, there were only so many times that Claudio Ranieri could deflect the pressure of being at the top of the Premier League pile with any great conviction. Leicester City had scrambled a couple of single goal wins from the three matches since their heartbreakingly late defeat at Arsenal last month, but their performances had become scrappier and scratchier over the last couple of weeks.
Sure enough, over the course of the last thirty minutes of the match the passes began to go astray. Newcastle United, emboldened by being able to see the whites of their hosts’ eyes, started to press forward in greater and greater numbers. A shot from Sissoko was deflected off the elbow of Wes Morgan. On another day, a referee might have given a penalty kick for that. A cross from the left, a short pass, and Siem de Jong miscued a shot that he might have calmly slotted past the goalkeeper on another day. As the game ticked down towards injury time, though, Leicester started to regain a little composure. They ran down the clock as effectively as Arsenal might have done in their prime of the one-nil wins, nudging the ball towards the Newcastle United corner flags as the game ticked through three minutes of stoppage time at the end, relieving a little pressure on a defence that had seemed to be close to breaking point over much of the previous twenty minutes.
The full-time whistle arrived, acting like a pressure valve on the crowd. Leicester City go back to being five points clear at the top of the Premier League with just eight games of the season left to play. Those associated with Tottenham Hotspur, Leicester’s nearest rivals at the top of the table, might choose to take a little comfort from the fact that Leicester only managed one shot on target all evening, and that this was a performance which was dripping with a similar sort of nerviness to that which their own team has displayed more than once in recent weeks. Such consolations, however, have a flip-side. The arrival of Rafael Benitez at St James Park made this match ripe for an upsetting of the apple cart, and if Leicester City can grind out results such as this in front of live television cameras whilst not playing as well as they are capable of, then it starts to feel as if the Premier League title might just be on its way to this particular corner of the East Midlands for the first time in the club’s history. With eight games to play, somehow or other it’s still possible.
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