TheBigMatch

Football: Likely late twist if Leicester slip again

Leicester's Leonardo Ulloa celebrating his goal against West Ham from the penalty spot on April 17.
Leicester's Leonardo Ulloa celebrating his goal against West Ham from the penalty spot on April 17.PHOTO: REUTERS

Some room for error, but they must beat Swans without Vardy, or Spurs can close in

It seemed a stroll. Now it transpires there is a title race after all.

Twin days of drama on Sunday and Monday showed Tottenham's pursuit of Leicester is intensifying. It also raised questions if the previously-unyielding league leaders could fall away in the final four games.

They have margin for error and only require eight points but a slip-up now may be telling: On paper, a home match against Swansea is their easiest remaining fixture. Win it and, temporarily anyway, they have an eight-point advantage again. Don't, and they will feel Tottenham's breath on their necks.

They have coped with pressure before. Monday marks the first anniversary of the day they moved out of the relegation zone last season. Much has changed since then as Leicester have gone further and further into uncharted territory.

Now they face another unusual experience: for the first time in 418 days, they begin a league game without Jamie Vardy tomorrow.

A deserved dismissal for diving probably did not figure among the plot lines the Hollywood scriptwriter who plans to tell Vardy's story wanted. Nor did Leicester, deprived of the putative Player of the Year.

Leonardo Ulloa, who converted the 95th-minute penalty to rescue a point against West Ham, is his replacement. The Argentinian has illustrated his character. What he lacks is Vardy's pace, which makes Leicester such a menace on the counter-attack.

As they often play with a minority of possession and Swansea prefer to dominate the ball in midfield, Vardy's speed could have been crucial. Instead, the Welsh side can afford to push up and Leicester have to find another way to win.

The obvious alternative main man is Riyad Mahrez, whose hat-trick secured a 3-0 win over Swansea in December but whose last three games have produced neither a goal nor an assist.

That has been camouflaged by a defence with five clean sheets in six. But, after referee Jonathan Moss controversially awarded West Ham a penalty when Wes Morgan tugged Winston Reid, he and his sidekick Robert Huth may have to stop grappling opponents at set pieces. Leicester's methods are under the microscope now.

So is Swansea's head coach. Francesco Guidolin has said he wants to stay on but with American investors on the verge of a £100 million (S$194 million) takeover and the spectre of Brendan Rodgers growing larger, he may be facing an uphill battle unless he can spring a surprise.

Swansea are capable of that. They have already altered the title race by winning at Arsenal early last month, and if they may have little to play for, their manager does not.

So does Claudio Ranieri. These two Serie A veterans have coached 19 Italian clubs between them. Neither has ever won a league title.

Now one Italian may influence if the other's team are remembered as champions or chokers.

LEICESTER V SWANSEA

Singtel TV Ch102 & StarHub Ch227, tomorrow, 11.15pm

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 23, 2016, with the headline 'Likely late twist if Leicester slip again'. Print Edition | Subscribe