The Big Match

Hammer test for miserly foxes

Jamie Vardy celebrating with Riyad Mahrez after scoring the first goal for Leicester City during their English Premier League soccer match against Newcastle United at St James' Park in Newcastle, Britain, in this on Nov 21, 2015 file photo.
Jamie Vardy celebrating with Riyad Mahrez after scoring the first goal for Leicester City during their English Premier League soccer match against Newcastle United at St James' Park in Newcastle, Britain, in this on Nov 21, 2015 file photo. PHOTO: REUTERS

Free-scoring and tactically flexible West Ham looking to breach Leicester's solid 4-4-2

Officially, Leicester City are nine points away. Unofficially, they are probably even closer than that. Unless Tottenham win each of their last five games, they require still fewer.

The title is tantalisingly close. The ludicrous should soon be factual.

Leicester's mantra of taking each game as it comes is serving them well. They are grinding out the wins, churning out the clean sheets. It is 46 days since they last conceded.

Yet as they meet another of the season's great overachievers, something has to give. Leicester have won their last five games, but they have contained just six goals. West Ham's last four league matches have featured 19. They have scored and conceded at least twice in each.

One specialises in low-scoring wins, the other in high-scoring draws. Claudio Ranieri's team should be champions, Slaven Bilic's could be Champions League qualifiers. Yet, five points behind fourth-placed Manchester City, the Hammers probably require a victory at a ground where only Arsenal have won in the league.

The guarantee is that they will be entertaining, whereas Leicester have become masters of efficiency. Ranieri's gameplan and team are set in stone. He should field the same 11 for the sixth successive game.

The decisions, therefore, rest with the enterprising Bilic. He switched to 3-4-2-1 against Arsenal, an experiment he abandoned at half-time. He has to consider whether to amend his attacking blueprint.

Leicester's opponents have only belatedly adopted a policy of defending deep to negate Jamie Vardy's pace. If West Ham are progressive, it may suit Leicester, who like to catch teams on the counter-attack.

Even the Hammers' rediscovered weapon may be to Leicester's liking. Andy Carroll terrorised Arsenal when scoring a hat-trick. Yet, if any pair of centre-backs should be able to halt him in the air, it is the old-fashioned pair of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth.

Instead, the real threat may lie with Dimitri Payet. He is one of the four nominees for the PFA Player of the Year award on show, along with Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante.

West Ham's Frenchman opened his account in 2-1 defeat by Leicester in August, a result with far greater consequences than anyone realised at the time. West Ham's 4-2-3-1, with Payet cutting in, offers them the chance to outnumber Leicester's 4-4-2 devotees in the middle.

West Ham may possess more attacking potency but, after their midweek FA Cup defeat by Manchester United, they could be the more fatigued. This could prove the week their ambitions end.

Leicester have been fresh and focused this season, patient as well as pacey and purposeful. It has enabled them to surpass every expectation.

There were tears from Ranieri after Sunday's win at Sunderland. One way or another, there may be more as the impossible dream suddenly becomes strangely real.

LEICESTER V WEST HAM
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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 16, 2016, with the headline 'HAMMER TEST FOR MISERLY FOXES'. Print Edition | Subscribe