Leicester close in on title as Spurs and Arsenal draw
A week that seemed to start badly for Leicester has ended with the Foxes five points clear with nine games to go
The last week has been good to Premier League leaders Leicester. It began with the doom-mongers predicting that two dropped points against West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday evening was evidence that the pressure was getting to the Foxes and that their title dream was dying. But that was before the extraordinary results 24 hours later when Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City - second, third and fourth, respectively - all lost their matches.
City won on Saturday, a 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa, but the north London derby ended in the best possible outcome for Leicester - a 2-2 draw in a game that was 90 minutes of breathless action and entertainment. As Spurs and Arsenal rested their weary feet, Leicester travelled to Watford for their evening encounter.
It took a moment of magic from Riyad Mahrez to squash the Hornets, the Leicester winger striking a left-foot thunderbolt from the edge of the penalty area on 56 minutes for the only goal of the game. Those three points increased the Foxes lead at the top of the table to five with nine matches remaining, a big enough cushion to have the travelling fans singing "we're going to win the league" as the Vicarage Road clock ticked down.
Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri was more circumspect, however, telling reporters after the match: "I don't dream, I continue to work hard. The fans dream and we work which is a good combination. Did you see today? Every match in the Premier League is a battle, not [only] for us but everybody... we are running for something special."
Describing their five point lead as "nothing", Ranieri added: "We want to continue to fight match-after-match, step-by-step, and now our mind is on Newcastle [next Monday] which is another tough match at home."
If the Italian feels under any pressure he's doing a great job concealing it, a demeanour which perhaps explains his side's composure while their more illustrious and experienced rivals are showing signs of stress. Ranieri even joked with the press corps, claiming he hadn't been aware of the outcome of the lunchtime fixture at White Hart Lane.
"It was 2-2!" he exclaimed, when informed by a journalist. "Oh good. Thank you."
The goal from Mahrez - the Algerian's fifteenth of the season - had his manager purring. "The goal was amazing," he said. "The ball was there, the shot at goal was good quality, but we know very well about Mahrez."
So does the rest of the Premier League now, particularly the fact that the 25-year-old cost Leicester just £400,000 from French second division side Le Havre, making the North African one of the greatest bargains in Premier League history.
There was a time when Arsene Wenger was able to spot a good bargain from a mile off but the Arsenal manager has long since lost his touch at bringing through young players. Against Spurs he had to thank two experienced South Americans for digging his side out of a hole: goalkeeper David Ospina, who pulled off two brilliant saves in the Arsenal goal, and Alexis Sanchez, who scored the last goal of a thrilling 2-2 encounter against Tottenham.
The result leaves Arsenal eight points behind Leicester and Wenger refused to get drawn into a discussion about whether his side were still in the title race. "I don't know what to say any more about that," he replied to a reporter's question."I think we have to take encouragement from our performance today and we have to produce that until the end of the season then we might have a chance."
Spurs boss Mauricio Pochettino was more upbeat in his reaction to the draw. Admitting that they had "missed a big opportunity" to defeat Arsenal in light of the dismissal of Francis Coquelin on 55 minutes for a second bookable offence, Pochettino insisted Tottenham were very much still in the hunt for their title since 1961. "There are a lot of games ahead - nine games and a lot of points," he said. "We need to feel proud and pleased with the effort of the players. Now we need to keep working hard, we’re in a good position.”