The last time Santa pulled his sled out of the garage Leicester were at the bottom of the Premier League, Nigel Pearson had the personality of a cold floorboard, and Match of the Day pundits were reminding everyone that only 3 of the previous 22 teams who were in that position at Christmas had escaped relegation.
12-months on and they are top of the Premier League, Claudio Ranieri is displaying savant-like managerial acumen, and Match of the Day pundits are talking about them as being serious title contenders.
Goodison Park is no easy place to go and get a result. A fact made, even more, challenging when you consider the type of football Everton has been playing as of late. The game featured the Premier League’s top three marksmen in Jamie Vardy (15), Romelu Lukaku (12) and Riyad Mahrez (11). They didn’t disappoint.
Roberto Martinez will not be happy with the way the Foxes poked their noses in front. Rogelio Funes Mori bringing down Shinji Okazaki in the 27th minute, in the penalty area, and Riyad Mahrez stepped up to calmly slot the ball past Tim Howard.
Lukaku came into this game on fire having scored seven in a row. He made that eight in the 32nd minute after a spot of penalty box pinball by Ross Barkley ended up at the feet of the Belgium, who smashed it into the roof of the net.
The second half was all about the penetration and patience of Jamie Vardy. Leicester was awarded a second penalty in the 65th minute after Howard brought down the onrushing English striker. The American is not the only one. Vardy has now won six penalties in the Premier League this season – more than anyone else. Mahrez stepped up once again, this time sliding the ball into the opposite corner of the net.
Leicester widened the gap after some great work between Vardy and Okazaki saw the Japanese player putting the ball past Howard to make it 3-1. Kevin Mirallas pulled one back a minute from time after a cute piece of football by Barkley, but despite having 67% of the possession, Everton could not find a third goal.
Five of the last six teams to be top of the Premier League at Christmas went on to win. Can Leicester emulate that success?
Mourinho For United?
Fans of Man Utd and Chelsea have had an interesting week.
Chelsea came into their dead cert against Sunderland minus a manager after the sacking of Jose Mourinho. The vexation from the stands seemingly indicating some of their star players will be happy with that outcome. The fans were not. Player power an obvious anathema to the Chelsea crowd who booed the names of Diego Costa and Cesc Fabregas during roll call.
Chelsea has been abysmal this season. However, you were more likely to see Keith Richards ordering a pint of coconut water than see Chelsea lose at home to Sunderland. Chelsea had won 19 of their last 22 encounters, and with the magic dust falling from Sam Allardyce’s fingers quicker than the burning tears of the fans, there was only one outcome. The Black Cats would get stuffed at Christmas.
Didier Drogba joined Roman Abramovich in the stands. It’s believed the Ivorian will help interim manager Gus Hiddink link the bonds between the players that seemed to have rotted to nothing under Jose Mourinho.
Oscar ran the show. He scored one from the penalty spot and had a hand in everything Chelsea did. Branislav Ivanovich and Pedro scoring the other two, in a 3-1 win. Fabio Borini scoring from a yard out to grab a consolation goal for a side that continue to have the movement and pace of a blunt boulder.
The Chelsea fans sang the name of the Special One for 90-minutes. That’s why he is special. He is one of the best managers in the world. Only Pep Guardiola boasts an equalling record of consistency wherever he has managed. Will Chelsea’s loss be United’s gain?
Man Utd’s appearances on Match of the Day are becoming a little polarising. I spend all day trying to avoid the results, and I don’t know why I bother. The production team have the same subtlety of a dickhead who tells you that Kevin Spacey is Keyser Soze minutes before you start watching The Usual Suspects.
When they feature last, you know they have racked up another goalless draw. When they feature first, against one of the worst teams in the league, you know they have once again failed to capitalise on what could have been a Premier League title won at a canter.
Last week it was Bournemouth. This week it was Norwich. Alex Neill’s men might have been putting in some decent performances of late, but they weren’t picking up results. Before their Old Trafford slot, Norwich had taken just one win in eleven – hardly the sort of form that enables a side to come away from Old Trafford with a win after failing to do so since 1989.
But this is United.
This is Van Gaal.
Cameron Jerome and Alexander Tettey smashing and grabbing two priceless goals for the Canaries, either side of an Anthony Martial equaliser. Those two conceded goals were more than the entire previous seven home games, and that’s six games without a win. They have only hit the target with seven shots in their past four Premier League games.
“It’s not good enough. We have to beat Norwich.” Said Van Gaal.
Unfortunately, there are many who believe Van Gaal won’t get the chance to try and reverse that result. With Jose Mourinho sitting at home stroking his cat, the temptation for the United board to move for the great man will be too much. Someone needs to inject some sentience into this wooden effigy of a team, and Mourinho seems the perfect foil.
If you think the boos raining down from the Stamford Bridge crowd were harsh during the Sunderland game, imagine the kickback when Jose moves to Old Trafford and turns them into the world beaters we all remember.
Spurs and Palace Continue to Impress
With Leicester City continuing to perform so impressively, we tend to forget about the other teams who seem to be punching above their weight – teams like Spurs and Crystal Palace.
Spurs have now won three and drawn four of their away games, after a comfortable 2-0 win at Southampton. Spurs had not lost in their previous six matches against the Saints, including five victories. There never seemed to be any danger of that record changing in the negative.
Ronald Koeman called his team, “amateurish and naive” during his summing up. Harry Kane opened the scoring in the 40th minute, after swaggering past three mindless Southampton defenders to put the ball into the back of the net. It was his 10th goal in the past 10 games. Dele Alli made it number two less than three minutes later. Spurs move above United into a Champions League spot. Had they not lost against a woeful Newcastle side they would be second.
Crystal Palace is another side with a tremendous away record. Their 2-1 win over an in-form Stoke side was their fifth away win of the season and 11th in 16 games. Wilfried Zaha was brought down clumsily in the box for Connor Wickham to score from the penalty spot. Stoke fought back well in the second half and equalised with a penalty of their own through Bojan Krkic, but an 88th-minute pile driver from Lee Chung-Yong stole the game much to the delight of the Palace boss Alan Pardew. It was the Korean’s first goal since April 2011. Palace moves up to sixth.
Look Out Below
Bournemouth made it three wins on the spin and five without defeat after beating West Brom at the Hawthorns, although it has to be said, Tony Pulis’s men made it as easy as possible for The Cherries. James McClean continued to show the world that he is not above a little thuggery with a horrible hack on Adam Smith. The referee sent the Irishman off the park. Smith would go on to put his side ahead with a nice goal in the 52nd minute.
Bournemouth concedes more goals from set pieces than any other team in the league; West Brom scores more headers. No surprise then when Gareth McCauley rose highest to head West Brom back into contention in the 79th minute from a corner.
Bournemouth won the game after getting a little luck when Darren Fletcher was judged to have brought down Dan Gosling in the penalty box (the replays show it was clearly outside). Charlie Daniels scored the winner from the penalty spot. West Brom was reduced to nine men when the referee gave Salomon Rondon his marching orders for baby butting Gosling in injury time.
I will finish my round up with two of the worst teams in the league. Newcastle and Villa played out a 1-1 draw in a rain-sodden St James Park. Newcastle came into the tie on a run of back-to-back wins; Villa had not won a game in 15. Fabricio Coloccini scored his first goal in an age to put Newcastle ahead. Siem de Jong missed the sitter of the season to put the Magpies 2-0 up, and Jordan Ayew made them pay with a thunderbolt in the 61st minute.
“I can’t believe we never won that match.” Said McClaren.
I can’t believe they ever win a match full stop.
Week 17 Results
Man Utd 1 v 2 Norwich
Chelsea 3 v 1 Sunderland
Southampton 0 v 2 Spurs
West Brom 1 v 2 Bournemouth
Everton 2 v 3 Leicester
Stoke 1 v 2 Crystal Palace
Newcastle 1 v 1 Aston Villa
Games to be Played
Watford v Liverpool (Sun, 20 Dec)
Swansea v West Ham (Sun, 20 Dec)
Arsenal v Man City (Mon, 21 Dec)
Premier League Standings (After 17 Games)
1st. Leicester – 38 pts.
2nd. Arsenal – 33 pts.
3rd. Man City – 32 pts.
4th. Spurs – 29 pts.
5th. Man Utd – 29 pts.
6th. Crystal Palace – 29 pts.
7th. Watford – 25 pts.
8th. West Ham – 24 pts.
9th. Liverpool – 24 pts.
10th. Everton – 23 pts.
11th. Stoke – 23 pts.
12th. Southampton – 21 pts.
13th. West Brom- 20 pts.
14th. Bournemouth – 19 pts.
15th. Chelsea – 18 pts.
16th. Norwich – 17 pts.
17th. Newcastle – 17 pts.
18th. Swansea – 14 pts.
19th. Sunderland – 12 pts.
20th. Aston Villa – 7 pts.