“Put a shift in.” “Gave 100 per cent.” “Covered every blade of grass.” There are almost as many expressions in English football for endeavour as the eskimos have for snow. If there is one quality supporters and coaches admire above all else in their players it is honest toil.
Which makes it surprising that Leicester City’s approach is not universal. In the vernacular, every player works his nuts off, every game. This ought to be a basic requirement of all professional footballers, but as all fans know, it is not.
Yesterday at Selhurst Park most Crystal Palace players worked hard most of the time. But Leicester’s worked feverishly all of the time, as they have throughout this remarkable season. That work ethic, combined with surging confidence, excellent discipline, and another touch of class from Riyad Mahrez, was enough to secure their third 1-0 victory in succession. Leicester did not keep a clean sheet in any competition until the 12th match of the season, in the 13 league games since Christmas they have achieved nine. Claudio Ranieri appears to be taking them to the title the Italian way.
Their fans certainly think they will make it. Long after the final whistle the travelling hordes could be heard singing ‘Now you’re gonna believe us - we’re going to win the league’. Even if their closest pursuers, Tottenham, win their match in hand at home to Bournemouth today Leicester will be five points clear with seven matches remaining.
“Our fans are singing - that is fantastic, but we have to stay calm and concentrate,” said Ranieri. “It is not easy. We are Leicester, not a team like Man City or Chelsea. Everything is in our hands. We have to do our job.” Taking his theme from Cheltenham he added: “We are in the home straight. Now I want to see my horses run.”
Palace manager Alan Pardew would not be drawn on whether he thought Leicester would tumble like Cue Card or continue to the finish line, but said were they would be ‘worthy champions’ if they made it. “They showed why they are top,” he added. “It was as tough a game as we have had this season.
“Teams do not get a load of chances against Leicester. They are strong and disciplined defensively and we could not create anything. But they started to get edgy towards the end and we should have got [a point].”
Leicester needed the safe handling of Kasper Schmeichel, the resolute defence of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, and touch of luck to survive that late Palace rally, but were deserved victors nevertheless. Danny Drinkwater - watched by Roy Hodgson, who has just called him into the England squad - controlled the midfield, Jamie Vardy and Mahrez were always dangerous, and N’Golo Kante and Shinji Okazaki never stopped running.
Most unusually in modern football both managers named unchanged teams, with Palace hoping the XI that defeated Reading to reach the FA Cup semi-finals could replicate that form in the league. Leicester were sharper and almost took the lead when Drinkwater released Mahrez, who nutmegged Wayne Hennessey but the ball hit his thigh.
Leicester’s shots-to-goals ratio is a key element of their success and the Algerian made sure 11 minutes from the break. Vardy delivered a perfectly weighted cross that Mahrez confidently tucked away.
Hennessey denied Vardy and Okazaki shot over as Leicester went for the kill. When it did not come they drew back, inviting pressure and seeking to strike on the break. Vardy would have done just that but for a Damien Delaney tackle, yet Palace, their line-up re-jigged by Pardew at the break, looked more likely scorers. Schmeichel saved from Bakary Sako, Yohan Cabaye went close and Leonardo Ulloa nearly scored an own goal, before Delaney volleyed against the bar.
While Leicester’s fans celebrated, Palace’s trooped away in puzzled dejection. Their team are winless in the league since mid-December. Like Leicester they have pace in attack but prior to the closing minutes never looked like scoring, Wilfried Zaha shooting wide from their best chance. They have an eight-point cushion of their own, but cannot feel entirely safe from relegation. “We know we are involved in it,” added Pardew. “We need to get points quickly.”
Crystal Palace: (4-4-2) Hennessey; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souare (Kelly, h-t); Zaha, Cabaye, Jedinak, Ledley (Gayle, 78); Bolasie, Adebayor (Sako, h-t).
Leicester City: (4-2-3-1) Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Drinkwater, Kante; Mahrez (Schlupp, 85), Okazaki (Ulloa, 76), Albrighton; Vardy (Amartey, 90).
Referee: Mike Jones
Man of the match: Drinkwater (Leicester City)
Match rating: 7/10