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Heart Of Football

'Super-Super Sunday' crucial but won't be conclusive

Leicester City continue to confound us, and to cause us to suspend disbelief in a most delightful way.

They began this season as a 5,000-1 shot to win the Premier League. They are now five points clear at the top, and the bookies' favourites for a title they have never won.

"If you had said this time last year that Leicester will be five points clear at the top, I'd quite gladly have offered my house to anyone for that," said Gary Lineker, the most famous footballer born and bred in the Midlands city.

Gary Lineker does not have a small house. Now 55, he started his career with Leicester but moved on to fame and fortune at Everton, Barcelona, Tottenham and Nagoya Grampus Eight before becoming the face and voice of BBC Sport.

Some years ago, when Leicester were staring down the barrel of bankruptcy, Lineker helped make the introductions that brought the Thai family of Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and son to the boardroom.

There may soon be football history, if Leicester actually pull off this rags-to-riches story.

Let's not get presumptuous.

What odds would you have given for Leicester to take Man City apart in Manchester as they did last week? And whoever is the lucky centre-half to face not only Vardy, but also the speedy, indefatigible Shinji Okazaki today, Heaven help him.

Today is what they call "Super-Super Sunday" in televised football. Leicester visit third- placed Arsenal in London, and second-in-the-table Tottenham travel up to Manchester City who, after losing against Leicester last week, slipped to fourth.

Nothing will be conclusive, whatever the results. Each club will still have a dozen games to play. Leicester have only the EPL to concentrate on, the other have Europe and the Cups to think about.

Injuries will play a mighty part, particularly if anything should happen to Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez or N'Golo Kante, the three most startlingly successful Foxes in this remarkable season.

As a barometer to this season's topsy turvy form, no Gunner is anywhere close to the 18 goals that Vardy has struck, so far, for Leicester.

Mesut Oezil has created 16 assists and is way top of that individual ranking for the season. But look who is in second place, with 10 assists: Mahrez.

The same Mahrez is an early contender for player of the season because, apart from setting up goals for Vardy, he has scored 14 of his own.

And as a winger, there is no one quite so consistently sparkling, so good at choosing when to dribble, when to cross, when to slip in a low pass than Mahrez.

We have noted before that he cost £400,000 (S$810,000). That is 100 times less than Arsenal paid to get Oezil, and according to reports emanating from Spain this weekend, Oezil is dissatisfied with his contract in London and wants to leave after this season.

That newspaper talk emerged after Arsene Wenger's press conference on Friday. During that, the Arsenal manager was gently playing the pressure game, suggesting that Leicester's romantic vision of the title might yet founder when the weight of expectation seeps in.

Wenger's approach was that Leicester, with far more time between games to think about the lead they now have to lose, might experience a tension they have never felt before.

City's wily old coach Claudio Ranieri has two answers.

One, that his players faced real pressure this time last season when they were rock bottom, and favorites to be relegated.

Two, that Arsenal, Man City, and maybe even Spurs have spent so much more than Leicester, and that is pressure.

"Tell me why we have pressure? Tell me why I must feel pressure," Ranieri says. "We want to dream with our fans. Nobody wake us, please.

"A little team is fighting, why? Because the big teams who are spending a lot of money aren't in the normal position."

He pauses, laughs behind his glasses, and adds: "When (the bigger clubs) are playing in the Cups, we will go to the sea, make some swimming, and sit in the sunshine."

Bask in it, Claudio. Bask.

He knows full well that Arsenal are the one team that has beaten Leicester in the Midlands team's own King Power Stadium.

He appreciates that the Gunners did not simply win that day in September, but with Alexis Sanchez on fire and scoring a hat-trick, with Olivier Giroud and Theo Walcott also netting, Arsenal hammered Leicester 5-2.

Vardy scored, twice, but nobody was shocked by the outcome. Leicester have played Arsenal 19 times and won only once. Arsenal have dispatched Leicester eight times in nine games at the Emirates - and drawn the other one.

But what odds would you have given for Leicester to take Man City apart in Manchester as they did last week?

And whoever is the lucky centre-half to face not only Vardy, but also the speedy, indefatigible Shinji Okazaki today, Heaven help him.

Wenger is musing on the central defence. He entrusted Per Mertesacker with the captain's armband, but the big German's strengths are in the air. On the ground, he is fallible and slow.

Most likely, Wenger will pair together Laurent Koscielny and the Brazilian Gabriel Paulista. The latter has made only 17 appearances in the Premiership since arriving from Villarreal two seasons ago, but he is quicker than Mertesacker, and since Leicester's strengths are speed on the ground, might be the better option.

It is a high noon kick-off in London, followed four hours later by Man City against Tottenham.

City might also gamble in defence because it is football's most open secret that whenever Vincent Kompany is unavailable, the Man City defence is ridiculously fragile.

Kompany last played, and last broke down with a calf injury, on Boxing Day. No-one can be sure when repeated muscle injury is ready for the pace of the EPL, but specialists have done what they could to prepare Kompany for his latest comeback.

Harry Kane, the Spurs striker, will do what he can to impose his physical approach today. Harry is ready; whether City can be, with or without Kompany, we will find out.

The table right now tells you why Leicester and Spurs are front runners. Each have lost just once away from home where the spirit is most vigorously tested, and where counter-attack is their forte.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 14, 2016, with the headline ''Super-Super Sunday' crucial but won't be conclusive'. Print Edition | Subscribe