With consecutive games against three of the Premier League’s big-hitters safely negotiated, now comes a different test of Leicester’s title credentials.
Claudio Ranieri’s men defeated Liverpool and Manchester City before almost squeezing out a point from Arsenal with 10 men by playing exactly as they like – with devastating speed on the counter-attack. Now comes a run of games against teams who will refuse to take the bait in the same way.
Do Leicester have the variety in their attack to break down less ambitious teams who will gladly sit in their own half?
Their next four games include three home meetings with sides lurking in or around the drop zone, with none of Norwich, West Brom or Newcastle likely to go to the King Power with ideas of anything other than a point. Recent weeks have highlighted the tireless industry and graft of N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater, but now their brief becomes more creative. The same goes for Marc Albrighton, while Riyad Mahrez must escape the close attention he is certain to receive.
Leicester are not overly fussed about retention; in fact, they are more effective when they see less of the ball. The Foxes sit third from bottom in the possession table having had it for only 43% of their games this season. But Norwich will have spent the last redundant fortnight drilling their defensive shape and that will concern Alex Neil more than ball possession. The onus is on Leicester to dictate the game, just as it will be for the next three weeks at least.
While Leicester might be cooking on gas, the Canaries are flapping like they’ve got a whiff of it.
Norwich are in the midst of a run of results that has left them perched perilously above the drop zone, and though there were signs of life during their last outing against West Ham, the fact they blew a two-goal lead and two points in the second half suggests they are exactly where they belong.
Prior to the West Ham draw and after five consecutive defeats in which they conceded 16 goals, Alex Neil spoke about going “back to basics”. That presumably means becoming harder to beat and Neil has had a full fortnight to work on his team’s organisation and come up with a plan to stop high-flying Leicester.
Whatever that might involve, Neil needs it to work because he’s running out of ways to inspire his players. He’s tried the carrot and after the woeful defeat at Aston Villa, the stick was out.
The next five matches could make or break Norwich’s season. The away games after Leicester take them to Swansea and West Brom, where they need to take points and deny their hosts of them, while home games in between those road trips bring Chelsea and Manchester City to town. If Neil was ever going to affect his defence, he would have done so over the last fortnight. To what extent they keep out Leicester will tell us whether or not that time was well spent.
Sunderland fans will have their eye on the derby next month but this weekend’s clash with West Ham will be just as big in the eyes of Sam Allardyce.
Through David Gold and Slaven Bilic, the Hammers have tried to dampen the animosity that is expected between the home fans and their former manager but no victory this season will taste quite as sweet to Big Sam than if the Black Cats were to leave Upton Park with three points.
After their acrimonious split last May, when Allardyce’s exit was announced at half-time during the final game of the season, there is no doubt West Ham have fared better of the two separating parties. The Hammers with Bilic have spent much of the season flirting with the top four while Allardyce is slumming it again at the foot of the table.
As Gold says, Allardyce achieved everything he was asked when he took over the Hammers in the Championship, but Big Sam has ambitions grander than the bottom three. The West Ham fans never really fancied him and that rejection left the ex-manager seething.
Of course, the trip to east London represents a chance for Sunderland to build on their win over Manchester United, climb above inactive rivals Newcastle and perhaps out of the bottom three altogether. But for Big Sam, this one will be personal too.
Yes, it was only FC Midtjylland but Depay’s performance against the Danish champions was impressive enough to have you believe that the penny might finally have dropped for the winger.
European competition has ruthlessly exposed United’s shortcomings this season but Depay has enjoyed some of his most productive shifts on the continental stage. Certainly in comparison to his first year in the Premier League, where he’s been absolutely dreadful. Two goals and no assists in domestic competition this season is not good enough even for a young import trying to settle into the hurly-burly of the English game.
Louis van Gaal spoke of Thursday night being a turning point for the £25million winger, and Depay has to make certain that is the case. Arsenal’s Hector Bellerin will provide far sterner opposition than anything the 22-year-old has come up against already this week but Old Trafford will be expecting more of the same after being reminded of what Depay can be.
Whether you believe Lescott’s explanation for his “accidental” tweet to be plausible or not, there will be hordes of Aston Villa fans unwilling to take the defender at his word. So the centre-half needs a big performance at Stoke this weekend to start rebuilding some bridges.
More grating, though, for the Villa fans than a trouser tweet of a tuned-up Merc must be Lescott’s admission of a lack of commitment during the gubbing they received from Liverpool. Fans can forgive poor performances – Lord knows the Holte End has seen enough of those – but Lescott has his work cut out after admitting he and his team-mates chucked it in.
So does Remi Garde, but everyone at Villa, including the boss, seems resigned to their fate. Understandably so. The Villans are not good enough, in fact they are one of the worst sides the Premier League has ever seen, but they cannot afford to simply write off the remainder of the season by phoning it in like they did a fortnight ago. The 6-0 defeat to Liverpool has to be looked back upon as rock-bottom. Starting at Stoke on Saturday, the manager and the players must be seen to be at least trying to unite the club for what promises to be a difficult time in the Championship.
The Gunners showed on Tuesday in the defeat to Barcelona that old habits die hard. If at all. Despite going toe-to-toe with the European champions for much of the night, there was an inevitability about the 2-0 defeat and how they succumbed to it.
Wenger’s side are not quite good enough in Europe again, which is unsurprising given the manager is using the same methods and same players but expecting a different outcome. The Premier League this season, though, is a less ruthless environment than the European game. Arsenal can – and have – made the same mistakes as previous campaigns but they could still get away with it come May, so long as there is a resolution to their current goalscoring issues.
Arsenal were wasteful in the defeat to Barcelona, just as they were against Hull and Leicester. During the three home games before Barcelona, Arsenal attempted 70 shots and scored just two goals. Wenger said on Tuesday: “The way we finished our chances is a problem. I felt in the final third we missed something.” Indeed. The manager will be forcibly asked why that wasn’t addressed last summer or in January if his team comes up short again.
Perhaps Danny Welbeck’s return can spark a consistent improvement but while the former United striker is sure to be up for it on his old patch, relying on the England forward to be a regular finisher for the remainder of the season seems optimistic based on his previous record.
However he does it, Wenger has to find a new answer to an old problem and he has to solve it in time for Sunday’s trip to Old Trafford before the doubts creep into Arsenal’s fragile psyche once again.
The Dutchman wants compatriot Guus Hiddink to put a good word in for him with Roman Abramovich but the best way to impress the Chelsea owner will be to orchestrate another resounding victory over the Blues this weekend.
The Sadio Mane-inspired Saints outclassed Chelsea on their own patch in front of Abramovich in October but Hiddink has solidified the Blues since then. Embarrassing the defending champions in a similar way might just be enough to take Abramovich’s eye off Antonio Conte for long enough to fully consider Koeman for the job next season.
While Koeman will want to put on a show, Fraser Forster will make do with a sedate stalemate. The Southampton goalkeeper is yet to concede a goal since returning from 10 months on the sidelines with a serious knee injury and he can equal the club record for consecutive clean sheets if he achieves a seventh shut out on the bounce this weekend.