The Premier League in Review: Leicester’s Performance For The Ages
Regardless of what happens over the course of coming weeks, yesterday lunchtime we saw a match which will come to define this season, no matter what happens next. It confirmed for continuing skeptics the credentials of Leicester City as title challengers. You can’t keep writing this stuff off to chance forever, after all. It also reinforced the great story of the season, the upstart East Midlanders who are systematically taking on and beating some of Europe’s wealthiest football clubs. And it fed into the well of matches which have determined that we cannot take any result, or even any particular level of performance, for granted this season
We realistically expected Leicester City to try and sit back, to absorb the pressure that Manchester City would inevitably throw their way, and try to launch the occasional retaliatory lightning bolt of counter-attack when they could. We expected to see them have to stretch to their limits. Instead, what we witnessed was a bright, sharp and unafraid team. And this team has been playing like this for most of this season. It’s just taken a few months for it to sink in. Whether this turns up the pressure on Leicester City or leaves it where it is, we’ll only find out over time, but Leicester were so sprightly yesterday that they are giving off an aura of being impervious to pressure. They’re flawed, of course. Failure to take all three points against Bournemouth and Aston Villa demonstrated that. But they’ve bounced back each time.
Nobody’s saying they will win the league, even though the evidence of our own eyes has not given us any reason to not do so, but at least now we’re at a point at which they’re being recognised as being capable of doing so. And it’s had a remarkably unifying effect on the football watching community. There is so much negativity that hangs over football in this country, and such a sense of malaise at what it may all end up becoming, but this season has felt like a bit of a blessing, perhaps even a last hurrah before those that have the greatest resources at their disposal tighten their grip around it further. Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.
Even where we do manage a protest, a custard pie flies through the air and smacks it in the face. Liverpool supporters are right to be angry at the owners of their club over ticket prices, and the idea of walking out after seventy-seven minutes sounded like something that would make a statement and get a lot of people up. With Liverpool two-nil up and coasting against Sunderland, 10,000 got up and walked out in protest, the biggest ever mass protest seen over this issue at a Premier League ground. Within ten minutes, Sunderland had pulled level and 10,000 people outside the ground might well have been forgiven for wondering what all the fuss was about. What, whispered conspiracy theorists, if the team were instructed to do it after seventy-seven minutes? After all, the timing of the protest is known and will be visible to the players? It could, of course, just have fallen between being a coincidence and something that is always kind of likely to happen when this Liverpool team is involved.
Across the Premier League, that sense of being present during opposites day continued to embed itself into our collective subconscience. At White Hart Lane, where Tottenham Hotspur dominated against a Watford team inspired – as they were on Wednesday night – by a sensational performance by goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes. The Spurs that we recognise would have leaked a goal in the closing minutes and lost the match. This Spurs team kept pushing, kept nudging and, with nineteen minutes of the second half played, Kieran Trippier rolled in the only goal of the match and, whilst the scoreline in splendid isolation might suggest that Spurs only edged this match, the truth of the matter is that the home side’s domination of the match could only have warranted this result, and on enough previous occasions this season they’ve failed to press home this sort of advantage. Spurs continue to have the wind behind them.
At the other end of the confidence league, Crystal Palace have lost five of their last six, whilst Stoke City have only won one of their last six and Norwich City have lost five in a row and West Bromwich Albion haven’t won in their last five, either. Of these four, Crystal Palace had nominally the best day of all, coming from a goal behind to squeeze a draw from Swansea City. Stoke were soundly beaten at home by Everton and West Bromwich Albion lost at Newcastle United, but the team dropping most precipitously at the moment is Norwich City, who lost away to an Aston Villa that is continuing to slowly spark to life this season. Their loss coupled with Newcastle’s win means that the Canaries are now in the relegation places, and it’s difficult to see how this team might reignite its season, new signings notwithstanding. Aston Villa, meanwhile, are just starting to twitch. Could the most unlikely escape from relegation in living memory be on after all?
On opposites day, Chelsea versus Manchester United is a low-key fixture being played out of the spotlight and away from the headlines. Sunday’s fixtures began with a routine win for Arsenal at Bournemouth, a result which keeps them in the title race and keeps Bournemouth with one eye on those below them in the league table. With Jose Mourinho now being openly linked with Manchester United, there was a tetchy air at Stamford Bridge for the last match of the weekend’s fixtures. The first half was played as if there was almost a sense of fear, although it was Chelsea that eventually shook of those particular shackles, warming up after about half an hour to create chances for Diego Costa and Oscar before shouts for a penalty kick were waved away by the referee. Eight minutes into the second half, an already muted game had a little more wind knocked out of it when Kurt Zouma buckled as he fell to the ground, causing himself a horrible looking and potentially debilitating injury.
Barely two minutes after Zouma was hauled from the pitch, Jesse Lingard threatened to end Guus Hiddink’s unbeaten spell as the manager of Chelsea with a goal of truly exceptional skill and balance, swivelling and sweeping to drive the ball wide of Thibaut Courtois and into the top corner of his goal. It was a moment that was dependent on muscle memory and technique, and of not a little luck. And it was a moment from which Chelsea, and specifically the turbulence that comes with the finely-tuned dark arts of Diego Costa, were only able to recover from at the very last minute. Costa added a little more onto the credit card debt that he may hold with the devil to level from close range after some howling Manchester United defending. A point each, then, and Manchester United remain in pursuit of Manchester City in fifth place in the table, albeit six points and an inferior goal difference behind them. Louis Van Gaal’s position at the club remains in question, of course. Having drawn with a team that was built by Jose Mourinho, he could yet lose his position and be replaced by… Jose Mourinho. On opposites weekend, anything is possible.
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