Sooner or later, Leicester City is going to wake up. But after moving, at least temporarily, six points clear at the top of the table with a 3-1 win at Manchester City, it looks increasingly as though it won’t be this season. All reason, all precedent says that it cannot happen, that Leicester City’s squad is too slim, that its players simply aren’t good enough to win the league. And yet, with a third of the season remaining, its position is commanding.
Even Claudio Ranieri, having dispensed with his glasses because of the rain, looked as though he couldn’t quite believe what he was seeing, blinking with a half smile on his face beneath a soaking beany. There’s still a sense that Leicester isn’t quite taken seriously, that its victories are regarded like those of a plucky underdog in the FA Cup that clings on and clings on and rides its luck. But this was a clinical dismemberment of the title favorite.
"It was a good performance," a humble Ranieri told reporters after the win. "Difficult, because when you’re playing against a team like City, players with fantastic quality, it’s not easy but we concentrated very much. We wanted to try to win, without pressure, just enjoy the match, and try to do our best. I think the first goal was very good for our confidence and then we closed all the space."
Leicester sat deep, drew Manuel Pellegrini’s side on, defended superbly and struck on the break. Twice Robert Huth, whose arrival from Stoke City in February has coincided with Leicester’s remarkable rise, struck from set-pieces, while the other goal came from a more familiar source, Riyad Mahrez scoring his tenth away goal of the season – more than anybody else – from an exhilarating breakaway.
City, not for the first time this season, looked nonplussed in the face of an opponent that attacked it at pace. Yaya Toure, a shambling ghost of the player he used to be, was withdrawn after 52 minutes, having been run ragged by N’Golo Kante. The center-back pairing of Nicolas Otamendi and Martin Demichelis again looked sluggish. The reliance on Sergio Aguero and the perennially injured Vincent company is staggering.
And yet for all that, the day still began with a sense that this might be when it all fell apart for Leicester, the moment at which reality intruded on the dream. Football might be predicated on romance but has become programmed for cynicism.
Then three minutes in, it happened. Neat interplay on the right won a free-kick. Mahrez took it to the near post and Huth forced the ball in via a deflection off Demichelis. There was a moment of silence as the Leicester fans at the far end of the ground absorbed what had happened, then a disbelieving roar. “We are staying up!” they chanted, mocking the widespread predictions at the start of the season that they’d go down. Bit why should they know the songs you’re supposed to sing when you’re at the top of the league?
The game, from then on, was played almost exclusively in the Leicester half, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing for Leicester. This season it has broken with greater pace and fluency than any other Premier League side and, when it did, it was persistently menacing. Vardy took down a Marc Albrighton ball over the top superbly only for his jab to hit the legs of Joe Hart and Shinji Okazaki couldn’t quite get enough purchase on a low cross from Vardy to divert in goalwards.
Leicester perhaps at time got too deep, but City struggled to create chances. There was a David Silva run that led to a low shot deflected just wide and a clever Raheem Sterling dink that released Yaya Toure to blaze over but again and again City moves ended in speculative crosses that Huth headed clear.
Three minutes into the second half, it happened again. It began with Christian Fuchs winning the ball in the left-back position. He shrugged off one challenge and fed the ball to N’Golo Kante. He surged forwards, shaking off one tackle and sidestepping another then played it to the charging Mahrez. He hurdled Pablo Zabaleta, zipped by a static Nicolas Otamendi and then wrong-footed Joe hart with a finish clipped just inside the left-hand post. It was a brilliant breakaway goal, the essence of Leicester this season.
Fernando had a close-range header brilliantly saved by the knee of Kasper Schmeichel but any thought of a comeback disappeared as Huth looped in a second in the hour. Leicester hadn’t just survived, it had won and done so so comfortably its fans could enjoy half an hour of celebrating the increasing gap at the top of the table. Aguero did pull one back with a late (offside) header but it barely mattered.
This run of three games — Liverpool at home then Manchester City and Arsenal away — had been earmarked as crucial. Leicester has already won two of them. It goes to the Emirates next week knowing it can afford to slip up and still be top of the table.
"This season is a crazy league, I don’t know why," Raineri told reporters admitted: "I don’t think about if we win the league, I don’t want to think about it. My mind goes over the next seven days — Arsenal, another tough match, other fantastic players, another fantastic stadium. But we’re alive and we want to fight. I hope we concentrate as well as in these last matches to continue our dream."
The way it’s playing, though, it may simply strengthen its grip on the title race.