Heart Of Football

Skip the Ball - Spurs will have a ball of a time if they catch Foxes

The English Premier League title is in the balance. The FA Cup semi-finals are under way. And the top table at the Professional Footballers' Association awards dinner in London tonight is bound to be severely compromised.

There are two clubs left in the race to be top-flight league champions - Leicester City for the first time ever, and Tottenham Hotspur for the first time since 1961.

Quite rightly, the players from 100 clubs who vote in these awards have chosen four Foxes and four Spurs players in the line-up of the best Xl of this season.

The Tottenham four - Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Toby Alderweireld and Danny Rose - will, by order, be at home tonight. Manager Mauricio Pochettino forbade them all from attending the Ball at London's Grosvenor House Hotel for good reason - Tottenham face West Bromwich Albion at White Hart Lane tomorrow evening.

"Sometimes you've got to look at the bigger picture," said the EPL's leading scorer Kane. "Monday is more important."

Leicester's quartet might make it for the main course of the dinner, quite possibly by getting a ride down to London straight after this evening's game against Swansea City at the King Power Stadium in Leicester.

If there is to be a twist in this already stunningly surprising season at the top, it might have its roots in Leicester's indiscipline last weekend... I actually felt that Jonathan Moss got most calls right in a match that was close to impossible to referee.

That is a two-hour car ride if the motorways are clear, but a short hop in the Leicester owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha's helicopter.

It has become almost so familiar a sight, the Thai duty-free billionaire's chopper on the King Power centre circle waiting to whisk the owner back to his west London house. And on this occasion, the helicopter pad is conveniently just a 20-minute drive to the Grosvenor.

So, barring injury, Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, N'Golo Kanté, and Wes Morgan could be in dinner jackets and at their table in time for the awards ceremony.

Vardy actually has all the time in the world because of his one, possibly two, match ban following his red card and his subsequent charge for being abusive to the referee who booked him for a foul and then a blatant dive in the penalty box last Sunday.

Yes, Vardy has been a wonderful story in his rise from non-league football to the top of the Premier League. Yes, his energy, his pace, his properly channelled aggression in terms of goal scoring, has been a match for Harry Kane's equally extraordinary rise at Tottenham.

And, for sure, they deserve a dinner together ahead of being partners or rivals for an England shirt at the Euros.

Leicester's manager Claudio Ranieri admits he will have to change strategy this afternoon against Swansea. "We change something," says Ranieri, the silver fox of the Foxes. "I don't tell you if I change one player or I change the system.

"Without our goal-scorer, it'd not easy. But I'm convinced that everybody will make something more. We give the maximum every time, but for sure we will give even more to win the match today."

Shinji Okazaki, the Japanese whose front running is often such a shield for Vardy, is certainly someone who could not give more than he has all season long.

Leonardo Ulloa, the tall, rangy, willing Argentinian who has so often been a substitute when Okazaki has run himself out, could start. "Leo deserves to play," Ranieri said on Friday. "But before Leo is the team."

And, maybe, before Leo is the possibility of switching Mahrez from the wing to just behind Okazaki in the centre?

That is Ranieri's little secret for now.

But the coach is a fan of Mahrez, the £400,000 (S$780,000) winger bought from French football before most clubs knew about his exquisite balance, trickery, and invention.

"Riyad is fantastic!" says Ranieri. "Riyad is our light.

"When he switches on, Leicester changes colour, that is the truth."

When Riyad Mahrez switches on, he is both a pest to the opposition and very likely tonight's players' player of the year.

He dances with the ball. He darts, he feints, he teases. And he delivers - 16 goals and 11 assists so far this season.

That puts this nimble little player in amounts the to strikers led by Kane, Vardy, Sergio Aguero and Romelu Lukaku.

It also puts Mahrez third behind Arsenal's Mesut Oezil and (again) Spurs' Christian Erikssen as the top creators in the EPL this season.

The only nominee in the Player of the Season category to rival Mahrez for magical qualities this season has been West Ham's Dimitri Payet.

(Payet, incidentally, is one of the three non-Leicester or non-Spurs players in the team of the year. Manchester United's goalie David de Gea and Arsenal's right-back Héctor Bellerín are the others).

So its a pity that the gala clashes with the scheduling for TV priority of the crucial games.

That's show business. Television is very much the Piper who plays the tune.

If there is to be a twist in this already stunningly surprising season at the top, it might have its roots in Leicester's indiscipline last weekend.

I actually felt that Jonathan Moss got most calls right in a match that was close to impossible to referee. Had he whistled for the fouls that Leicester big two (very, very big) centre-backs Robert Huth and Morgan perpetrated, he could well have given half a dozen penalties.

As it was, Moss stopped and demonstrably warned the pair that their sumo-style grappling at every set play would result in a penalty kick.

They ignored him, he was true to his word. And in the frenzied atmosphere, the most important call that Moss got wrong was giving Leicester a penalty that squared the result at the end. Very generous, that call, possibly because the crowd was giving him hell after he waived aside claims when Huth of all people was grabbed by the shoulder moments earlier.

At tonight's dinner, refereeing decisions will be a hot topic of conversation. How many of the players, and absent friends, will be true to themselves and ask if it is time to stop cheating, and stop pointing the finger at the refs when they are caught?

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 24, 2016, with the headline 'Skip the Ball - Spurs will have a ball of a time if they catch Foxes'. Print Edition | Subscribe