Well, that was a lot of ado about nothing. The popular worry was that Leicester City, shorn of their leading scorer, would fade as Spurs screamed toward the title. Four Vardy-less goals later and yet another clean sheet and it looks like the dream is still on. It is a clichéd phrase among excellent teams in all sports but the “next man up” philosophy seems to work when things are going well and that “next man” is joining a highly functioning unit. Leonardo Ulloa took Vardy’s spot in the starting line-up and on the score sheet with two goals in the Foxes biggest match of the year.
It does seem somehow fitting that Leicester City could all-but clinch the title against Manchester United next weekend. It was against the Red Devils last season that this edition of the Foxes thrust themselves into our collective consciousness. Yes, it was before they were surely relegated and before they miraculously escaped that fate and certainly before all of the drama that this season has brought. That 5-3 win over United in late September of last season at the King Power Stadium was our introduction to Leicester City’s comeback potential as well as to Jamie Vardy in all of his flawed glory.
Vardy, then essentially an unknown in the Premier League, was involved in almost everything that Leicester City accomplished on that momentous day. He assisted on Leonardo Ulloa’s opener. Down 3-1, Vardy and Rafael tussled multiple times, first outside of and then inside of the penalty area with a reasonable official probably opting to call a foul on Vardy for the initial push. Instead, the battle was allowed to continue and it ended with Vardy being awarded a penalty that David Nugent converted. Vardy’s agitating play at its finest if you were rooting for Leicester City and at its worst if you were on the United side of things.
Vardy wasn’t a factor in Cambiasso’s equalizer but he returned to the middle of things quickly as the Foxes continued their dramatic comeback. He scored what would eventually be the match-winner. Finally, to put the icing on the cake, Vardy did something that I have a hard time believing ever happened to Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, he drew a second penalty on a United defender in the same match. A man that United supporters would claim should have been off for multiple tussles contributed to a fourth goal on the day as Tyler Blackett was shown a red card for a foul on Vardy in the box. Leonardo Ulloa scored his second Vardy-made goal on the day from the spot and the Foxes were officially announced to the Premier League.
For those that remember Middle School literature classes, this is about the most textbook example of foreshadowing that you could possible imagine. As we arrive at the end of this almost two-season long drama your teacher would have dismissed the broader story because the premise was too far-fetched but would have called out the excellent use of foreshadowing in the early stages of the story. The United upset primed the audience to believe that the Foxes might be capable of amazing comebacks. Jamie Vardy’s individual performance in that match, while not showing up entirely in the score sheet because he didn’t take the penalties, primed us for the notion that he could, at his best, influence the outcomes of significant Premier League matches.
The symmetry is also beautiful. Leonardo Ulloa, the club’s record signing as they ascended to the Premier League two summers ago, was again the two-goal hero. Lest we forget, Ulloa started off last season with five goals in his first five Premier League matches capped by the brace against Manchester United. He then did his best Bafetimbi Gomis impersonation and disappeared for the Foxes long fallow period with four goals over 28 matches that saw him dropped to the bench. He re-emerged at the end of last season and chipped in four goals down the stretch as the Foxes saved their season but his final goal total of 13 in his initial Premier League campaign was certainly at least a little deceptive as nine of the 13 were crowded into 12 matches at the beginning and end of the season.
This season Ulloa has largely been a secondary figure at the King Power Stadium but there he was yesterday, coming up big when his team needed him the most. It has been something of a theme for Leicester City overall, not just for Ulloa. When Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez saw their goals and assists dip in the dog days of February, March and April we saw the supporting cast pick it up. Shinji Okazaka scored a few, Robert Huth powered home a couple, heck, even Danny Drinkwater did his part.
The title is certainly not a certainty at this point but the beautiful Leicester City-ness of the win over Swansea certainly makes it look like an inevitability. That the next test comes against the opponent that, to my mind, gave the Foxes the seed of the permission needed to dream big dreams last is a wonderful bit of theater. If Spurs shock us all and drop points to West Brom later today and the Foxes have a chance to clinch the title at the Theater of Dreams then, all the more fitting.
The Title Race (Ranked from favorites to most likely to miss out on the Champions League)
Leicester City – I think we covered the match, the outcome and what it means for the title race more than sufficiently in the intro. Here then we’ll take a moment to tip our caps to a well-deserved PFA Player of the Year award-winner in Riyad Mahrez. The English football establishment is frequently derided for being xenophobic and undervaluing the contributions of foreign players at the expense of over-valued English counterparts. Harry Kane has been excellent this season and should legitimately been in the conversation for the Player of the Year award but Mahrez has been a cut above even Kane and kudos to those in charge of the award for recognizing that fact.
Tottenham – Spurs haven’t allowed the pressure to get to them yet as they try to chase down Leicester City and there’s no reason to expect that they will today against West Brom, the Baggies are just not very good right now. The real question for Spurs is whether the Foxes have enough stumbling in them for any of this late-season excellence to matter.
The Second Tier (Ranked from most likely to break into the Champions League to least likely)
Manchester City – The mid-week draw with Newcastle was about as lackluster as performances get. Yes, the Magpies are scratching and clawing to stave off relegation but that’s no excuse for a team with as much talent as City have to not come away with three points. The romp over Stoke City is more what’s to be expected. It would be nice to lock this spot down for City but as often as Arsenal try to throw it away, City keep right on trying to give it back.
Manchester United – The Red Devils did what they needed to do against Crystal Palace in mid-week and then added to the good feelings with progression to the FA Cup final. Anthony Martial’s late winner against Everton may well have simultaneously decided the fates of four managers. Louis Van Gaal looks more and more likely to keep his job which would mean Jose Mourinho wouldn’t be ascending to the throne at Manchester United. Roberto Martinez almost certainly has to be out at Everton with no FA Cup trophy to help him justify one more season. Presumably the fourth person on this list would be the candidate to ultimately replace Martinez. That’s a lot to pin on one goal but it isn’t unreasonable. Just one Everton-related thought to throw out there, would Quique Sanchez Flores be a bad name to throw out there as a Martinez replacement if Watford let him go?
Arsenal – It’s all very curious at Arsenal right now. Rumors are leaking out about players being baffled by Arsene Wenger’s decision-making at key points. None can be deemed odder than the decision to start a decidedly out of form Olivier Giroud over an in form Danny Welbeck for a match that Arsenal really needed to win as they attempt to cling on to a Champions League spot. I like Giroud as a player more than most and, in general, would be in favor of any attempt to get his season kick-started after it seems to have fallen into a hideously bad rut. That said, playing away to a relegation-threatened team with a recent history of cranking out results at the end of the season to survive by the skin of their teeth is not the time to bring on a player who is struggling in front of goal. This isn’t to put the draw entirely on Giroud but it was certainly an odd decision.
So to the inclusion of Aaron Ramsey who has regressed significantly from his peak form of the first half of two seasons ago. Ramsey seems to have reached the conclusion that the way to recapture that form is to try as many extremely difficult passes, flicks, shots and moves as possible rather than just doing the basics right and letting the more difficult happen in the flow of the game.
Maybe Arsene Wenger can’t bring himself to retire and his late-season decisions are just a passive-aggressive way to get the Board at Arsenal to make the decision to leave for him. Hard to imagine what else might be going on there.
The Relegation Battle (Ranked from most likely to be relegated to least)
Aston Villa – Maybe Villa could stage some sort of contest or raffle to benefit a worthy charity that would see contest winners get to run out for an actual Premier League match. It couldn’t be THAT much worse than what’s actually happening, could it? At least some money would go to a good cause rather than what I’m sure is a fairly obscene profit that will accrue to Mr. Lerner despite the club being relegated. Surely they didn’t spend enough in transfers or wages to be both horrible on the pitch and unprofitable.
Newcastle United – Still a point behind both Norwich and Sunderland with both clubs having a match in hand on the Magpies but draws against Manchester City and Liverpool during the last week at least put them within one good result of safety assuming that their rivals can’t match or beat that result in their extra match. If the illusive concept of “confidence” or “momentum” can be given any meaningful value then solid results against good teams will help push Rafa’s men forward. The latter stages of the match against Liverpool was a bit odd though. With an additional substitution remaining the Magpies didn’t pull out all the stops and go for the win despite the fact that they had the advantage for much of the second half and certainly after Jack Colback’s equalizer in the 66th minute. The next two matches against Palace and at Villa will pretty much decide Newcastle’s season and you could easily see a scenario where it is they, and not Sunderland, who stage the late revival with Palace focused on the FA Cup Final and Villa focused on vacation.
Norwich City – Sitting on the sidelines and watching as their survival rivals chip away at what had been a slender lead in the race for survival has to be frustrating. Newcastle have picked up two crucial points and Sunderland one, all against far “bigger” opposition, since the Canaries last laced up their boots. They get their shot at fading Arsenal at the Emirates on Saturday and will have to equal or better Sunderland’s result from Sunday to stay in this race. It could be said that the Canaries started Arsenal down the spiral of poor results
Sunderland – The hardest of their remaining matches has now come and gone and the Black Cats came away with a solid point. The Black Cats are now in the, ahem, catbird seat sitting outside the relegation zone and with a match in hand over Newcastle and the same number as the Canaries. They will be looking enviously at the Magpies’ matches with Palace and Villa though, and will be hoping that Watford have entirely checked out now that they’re out of the FA Cup race.
What’s Next? We’re back to a week where everyone has one, and only one, match for the first time in a few weeks. The weekend starts with Newcastle hosting Crystal Palace at the same time as Sunderland visit Stoke in the relegation battle. After we know those results Norwich will travel to Arsenal in their attempt to either keep pace or jump ahead as the Gunners try to keep their nerve in the race for a Champions League spot. Sunday brings us the big one at Old Trafford as Leicester City look to simultaneously keep United out of the Champions League places and push themselves that much closer to the title. Following that, Manchester City travel to the south coast looking for their own win to keep them in third. The week ends with Spurs’ third straight Monday match as they travel to Stamford Bridge. If Eden Hazard is really alive again, this could be at least something of an interesting match as the Blues look to play spoiler and ensure that they, and not Spurs, are the biggest name in the Premier League in London.