Leicester City-West Brom Preview
Sure, Sergio Aguero is limping along at the Etihad and Alexis Sanchez is overworked at the Emirates. Those excuses might contribute to the explanation for why Jamie Vardy is four goals up on anyone else in the Premier League, but the fact remains that Leicester City's in-form marksman has as many goals in his last four top-flight matches as anyone else does this season.
That's why West Bromwich Albion won't be the only Premier League club with two eyes on Vardy on Saturday at the Hawthorns as the Foxes try to keep their place in the top five and do their best to stomp rumours of their goal scorer's potential move to an English giant during the January transfer window.
The 28-year-old Vardy, who went from being released by Sheffield Wednesday at 16 to featuring for fifth-tier Fleetwood Town in 2011-12 to capping for England three times during European Championship qualifiers in the past two months, has 10 goals in 10 matches - four up on Manchester City's Aguero, Arsenal's Sanchez and Newcastle United's Georginio Wijnaldum.
He's doubled his scoring from 34 matches last season as the promoted Foxes struggled to find their Premier League footing, but it's also a substantial increase from his pace of 16 in 37 matches during the club's reign in the Championship the season before.
"He's added goals to his game, and for me at the moment, on current form, he's the best striker in the Premier League right now," Foxes goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel told the club's official website.
He was rested from the first XI in Tuesday's 1-1 final at Hull City in which Leicester were dumped from the League Cup on penalties, but he did his part by converting his spot kick after entering in the 65th minute.
He's certain to feature Saturday, seeking at least a goal in his eighth straight Premier League match to equal Daniel Sturridge in 2013-14 and Ruud Van Nistelrooy in '01-02 for the second-longest Premier League streaks ever. Van Nistelrooy's 10-game run in 2003 is the crest, but that came across two seasons.
Regardless of length, there's already a case to be made for the value of Vardy's finishing against the others. Sturridge's Liverpool ended two points off the title in 2014, and Van Nistelrooy's Manchester United finished in the top three in each of the three seasons involved in his streaks with a title in '02-03.
Leicester is 48 matches into their top-flight promotion, and in those matches, they've scored 35 fewer goals (66) than Liverpool managed in 38 matches (101) during the season of Sturridge's streak.
Vardy's 59th-minute strike combined with Leicester's first clean sheet of the season led to the Foxes' 1-0 home win over Crystal Palace Saturday, giving them seven points on a three-match unbeaten streak. Leicester (5-4-1) and Tottenham Hotspur are the only two clubs with only one loss, while the Foxes and third-place West Ham United are the only clubs not to be shut out.
That could be in jeopardy against West Brom (4-2-4), who are tied with Watford with a league-low two fewer goals scored than Vardy but have only conceded 11 to remain 10th in the table on 14 points, five back of Leicester.
"They close all the space very well," said Foxes manager Claudio Ranieri, who follows the West Brom match with Watford and Newcastle, so a significant run is possible. "They press very well and they go on the counter attack. We must be very careful to read the match very well."
The Baggies figure to be comparatively well rested after being eliminated from the League Cup last month. They last played in last Saturday's 1-0 win at Norwich - their second straight triumph by that score following a three-match losing streak.
"We talk about clean sheets more because of the record I've got, but we did well going forward and got our rewards," manager Tony Pulis told the club's official website.
They've kept six clean sheets, which is tied with Manchester City and Manchester United for the division lead, and they have nine in their last 16 matches at the Hawthorns.
A third straight top-flight win would be West Brom's first such streak since managing four in a row in November 2012 and, more importantly, a victory over Leicester might prove they can keep up with those nearer to the top of the table. The Baggies' four wins have come against Stoke City, Aston Villa, Sunderland and Norwich City with Stoke leading the group in 14th. That might sound more like the group Leicester would fit in with.
Rather, the Foxes are three points off the pace of Man City and Arsenal - with a former Stocksbridge Park Steels striker to thank for half of their celebrations.
"For the whole team, he's a catalyst," Schmeichel said. "He sets us off."