Unthinkable is thinkable: Leicester’s main threats running out of time – and chances
Games against Manchester City and Arsenal loom large, then the Foxes are in the clear and running free to the title
Leicester City’s journey from the bottom to the top of the English Premier League is the sort of success story that is not supposed to happen in the age of football superpowers, and chances for their big-name rivals to deny them the title are starting to run out.
The Leicester bubble was meant to have burst during December when they had consecutive games against Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City, but they are in a stronger position now than they were at the start of that month.
At the end of November, with 14 games played, Manchester City were top on goal difference from Leicester, with Manchester United a point behind and Arsenal another point further back.
Now, 10 games later, Leicester are three points ahead of City and five clear of Arsenal, while United have dropped 10 points off the pace.
Tottenham have emerged as more serious challengers, although even they have dropped another point to Leicester over the past 10 games and trail by five.
The really difficult matches are dwindling for Leicester, which emphasises the importance of City and Arsenal hurting them over the next two weekends.
After next Sunday’s visit to the Gunners, Leicester will face only four more games against teams in the top half of the table and, just as importantly, will not be involved in any other competition during the title run-in.
City and Arsenal, meanwhile, will resume their Champions League campaigns later this month as well as playing the next round of the FA Cup.
City also have the League Cup final against Liverpool on February 28, giving them six top-level matches during the month in contrast to four for Leicester.
If we look back just two seasons to the time when Liverpool went so close to the title under Brendan Rodgers, it is clear what an advantage there can be for teams with only the Premier League to play for.
From this stage of that season, Liverpool (soon to be knocked out of the FA Cup) were the best team in the league with 37 points from their last 14 games, while City (the title winners) took 33, Chelsea 31 and Arsenal just 24 (having led with 14 games left). Whereas Liverpool had 15 matches in that period, City played 19 – that may not sound much, but was approaching a 30 per cent greater workload than Liverpool faced.
A key difference then was that Liverpool, who fell two points short of City at the end, had started the run-in with a big gap to make up, whereas Leicester are already at the top and have more leeway to drop points.
One of the most encouraging stats for them is that in the last 11 seasons the leaders at the start of February went on to take the title.
Even back-to-back defeats against City and Arsenal might not be enough to stop Leicester, and it is far from assured that they will lose either match.
Claudio Ranieri’s team have lost only twice in 24 league games and, while both defeats were against top-half teams (and one was against Arsenal), they have taken something from 10 of their 12 games against top-half opponents.
City, by contrast, have lost five of their 11 matches against top-half teams and two of those defeats have been in their four home games in that category.
Once on top, they have the firepower to run away with matches – as shown by a record of 12 wins in the 13 games where they have scored the opening goal – but there is an undercurrent of vulnerability with only two wins in 11 when they have failed to make the first strike.
That does not disguise the fact that City are strong favourites at home. In the past 12 months, since this weekend last year, Manuel Pellegrini’s side have won 16 of their 20 league games at the Etihad and been shut out only once.
Leicester, however, are difficult to stop on the road and, with Vincent Kompany still absent from the City defence, there is a good chance Leicester will score.
This looks likely to be a high-scoring match and over 1.5 goals in the first half is a top pick, along with over 2.5 goals in the match.
Leicester’s threat will be hard to quell but the handicap odds do not appeal and in the match betting they are worth chancing for a win that would send shock waves through the division.