Leicester City’s Premier League race almost ran

Burnley have pushed them all the way but now Leicester have taken a giant leap towards a first top-flight return in a decade.

The 46-game Championship season is a marathon and not a sprint. It’s not for the faint-hearted and requires spirit. Burnley have pushed them all the way but now Leicester have taken a giant leap towards a first top-flight return in a decade.

Ten months on from that soul-destroying 20 seconds that changed their season at Vicarage Road, the Foxes have relentlessly hunted down the fellow challengers to chase their Premier League ambitions.

Now just nine points stand between Nigel Pearson and a shot among the elite. With three of their next five fixtures against top-six opposition, how quickly the three required victories will come remains to be seen.

Promotion-chasing Wigan, mid-table Sheffield Wednesday and play-off outsiders Brighton come next. Should it go according to plan, it could all be wrapped up by April 8.

Draws with Blackburn and Yeovil may have suggested the eyes have been taken off the ball yet Leicester’s determination to edge over the finishing line was evident as the top two locked horns in a real Lancashire hotpot.

It wasn’t a stylish performance of swagger, but that of substance and efficiency to raid the Turf Moor fortress that was last breached in the league over a year ago.

turf moor

Burnley, on a shoe-string budget and using just 23 different players all season, have punched above their weight and deserve the utmost credit for it, guided by the ‘Ginger Mourinho’. Lest we forget that before a ball was kicked, the bookmakers had them as fourth favourites to plung down to League One.

Sean Dyche was magnanimous in defeat and rightly acknowledged that the afternoon’s events conspired against the Clarets.

Anyone missing their top scorer and a coveted marksman like Danny Ings, who was named the division’s best player recently, are going to struggle to fill his boots. When you lose his strike partner too, and the right-back with the most assists in the Championship, you know it’s not going to be your day. Even the suspension of Dean Marney was felt.

To compare the context, would Liverpool be able to sustain their Premier League title challenge at present with both Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge, Steven Gerrard and Glen Johnson on the treatment table? It makes you ponder.

Kieran Trippier’s absence was somewhat softened by the experienced Chris Baird, the Irishman making his third successive start since joining as a free agent after leaving Reading.

Just three minutes in, Sam Vokes’s afternoon was over before it even began. It prompted a change of plan for the Clarets to a system they have rarely experimented in with Ashley Barnes their lone frontman and it disrupted the approach of the team.

But that has nothing to do with Leicester, who did not care one iota, and did what they have done all season long. Impose themselves on the game from the outset.

Danny Drinkwater and Matty James were rarely mentioned, which wasn’t down to their anonymity but their quietly effective methods to close down David Jones and Scott Arfield.

The Foxes fielded the same starting eleven for the sixth match running but showed their strength in depth, which in comparison to Burnley’s was stark.

Defender David Edgar was forced into action when Welshman Vokes trotted off, along with his 20 league goals this season.

The difference was evidenced when Chris Wood stepped off the bench, which Kevin Phillips couldn’t even make, to replace Jamie Vardy for the Foxes.

The New Zealander was keen to take his opportunity and just as he did as a substitute on Tuesday against Yeovil, he took it. Only this time, it reaped instant dividends when his excellent hold-up play and ability to run in behind caused Burnley all sorts of trouble.

And as David Nugent picked up the baton, the ball was only ending up in one place. The former Clarets striker didn’t pull back in celebrating.

Chris Foy was called up late to take over refereeing duties and didn’t have the greatest day if truth be told. Much to the annoyance of those social media gurus….

With a penalty call at both ends ignored, at least his decision-making was consistent.

After the liveliness of the first half, the second half was disappointing which was the result of two factors. Leicester’s dogged compactness, and Burnley’s lack of penetration to finish off their midfield play.

In the tight and tense battles, it’s difficult to separate the two sides. A mistake or a 25-yard worldy can make all the difference.

In the case of Chris Wood, it was the latter.

The chasing down of the defence, the strength and aggression, not to mention the punt at goal was simply majestic. He had no right to let fly but what a special finish. Tom Heaton didn’t have a hope. A fitting strike to wrap up arguably the most important win of the season.

His enthusiasm was infectious and rubs off on team-mates. With the experience of going up to the top-flight at West Brom already in his locker, he could be a key figure in the final run-in for Leicester when squad rotation will no doubt take place.

They failed to do it at home before Christmas but beating your nearest challengers not only gives you a huge boost but pulls you further away from them.

Taking three points from a well-organised and spirited Burnley represents that Leicester have the credentials that QPR, Newcastle, Southampton and Norwich have had from years gone by. To win playing in third gear (second at best), stay defensively resolute to keep a clean sheet and produce something special when it matters in the final third.

Last tasting defeat at the start of December and the leading scorers in the division with 72 goals, it’s difficult to see who can halt their unrelenting bid to be top of the tree.

The most consistent team is always the one that prevails. And Leicester, with Burnley closely followed, have been the stand out.

Preserving their status at the summit is their only focus. The job is not done yet, by any means, but Leicester can safely begin preparations to cross swords with the likes of Arsenal and Manchester United next term. That I am sure of. Can they rise to the challenge? Time will tell.

Turf Moor Image by Adam.Haworth via Creative Commons/License

 

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