This was the kind of game where League titles are won and lost. It was tight, it was scrappy, and Leicester City’s spark was missing. The best sides find a way to win when they are not playing well, though, and that is what precisely what Leicester did yesterday.
There were 89 minutes on the clock when Riyad Mahrez picked up a pass from Danny Drinkwater, swayed forward and slipped a ball to Marc Albrighton on the right. The winger drove over a low cross that Jamie Vardy, with a lunging leg, touched on, and there at the far post was Leonardo Ulloa arriving at the perfect time to bury the ball in the net.
The King Power Stadium erupted, and there was suddenly real conviction in the collective home voice: “We’re Leicester City, we’re top of the League.”
Ulloa had not been the pitch long, having replaced the debutant Daniel Amartey 11 minutes earlier, but now he had the goal that took Leicester five points clear at the Premier League summit.
Claudio Ranieri was mocked as “The Tinkerman” at Chelsea, but his tinkering – which had also included sending Jeffrey Schlupp on to bring extra width – had paid off.
The Leicester manager said: “I tried to make some changes, to spread out their defensive line with Schlupp on the left and Albrighton on the right, and after that I put on Ulloa, as I need another goalscorer in the box. It was a good choice.”
Leicester had lost at the death at Arsenal a fortnight ago and would have been at risk of slipping below both Tottenham and Arsenal but for Ulloa’s strike. “It was a tough match and I am very, very happy because it was important to restart after the Arsenal defeat,” Ranieri added.
“We believe in ourselves. We believe it is important to fight until the end. We lost in the last second at Arsenal and today we won in the last minute. You can’t always play well. If I could win 11 matches from tonight without playing well, I’d take it.”
It was hard on a Norwich side who, either side of Ulloa’s goal, could have scored through the impressive Nathan Redmond and substitute Patrick Bamford, who both saw shots whistle narrowly wide. Indeed, in Jonny Howson Norwich had probably the best player on the pitch. Yet they remain fourth from bottom and without a win since 2 January.
“It was a tough one to take,” said Alex Neil, the Norwich manager, whose tactics left Leicester befuddled in the first period. Norwich came out with three centre-halves in Ryan Bennett, Russell Martin and Timm Klose.
A similar ploy had almost brought a point at Manchester City earlier in the campaign, and it deserved some reward here as Norwich sat deep and frustrated a Leicester side looking strangely lethargic after 13 days without a game.
Nor did Norwich just defend. Led by the tigerish Howson, they also broke quickly, and but for Cameron Jerome’s profligacy they would have had a half-time lead. The centre-forward’s poor touch let him down as he latched on to Redmond’s clever pass down the inside-right channel and the ball ran through to Kasper Schmeichel. He was even more wasteful in the 38th minute, putting a free header wide from a corner.
“We probably had the better chances in the game,” said a rueful Neil, who also pointed to a Redmond shot that drew a save from Schmeichel. “The way we set up with three centre-backs and the pace at the top end of pitch was why we had success.”
The fact that Norwich came away empty-handed was an illustration of the way their luck has been going, as Neil noted. “In recent weeks we’ve been 2-0 up against West Ham, been beating Liverpool 3-1, and today we had opportunities and instead conceded a goal that cost us the game.” All three games ended in defeat.
At the other end, for the best part of an hour Leicester showed only the odd glimpse of their attacking abilities. Martin got his feet in a muddle and nearly turned a low Albrighton cross into his own net. Another Albrighton ball, this time from a left-sided free-kick, need just the faintest of glances from Robert Huth but he failed to connect.
Not until 11 minutes into the second half did Norwich’s goalkeeper, John Ruddy, have a save to make, from Vardy’s low free-kick. Yet Ranieri, and his players, reacted positively. First the Italian introduced Schlupp and Andy King for Shinji Okazaki and N’Golo Kanté, who had a hamstring problem. By now Leicester too had three at the back.
Then Ranieri sent on another striker in Ulloa. Norwich had frustrated Leicester’s main men all afternoon, but it takes just one moment, and so it proved. Leicester are not going to be shifted easily.
Leicester: (4-4-2) Schmeichel; Amartey (Ulloa, 78), Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Kanté (King, 69), Drinkwater, Albrighton; Okazaki (Schlupp, 69), Vardy.
Norwich: (3-4-2-1) Ruddy; Bennett, Martin, Klose (Mbokani, 90); Pinto, Howson, Tettey, Brady; Redmond, Naismith (Jarvis, 82); Jerome (Bamford, 90).
Referee: Neil Swarbrick.
Man of the match: Howson (Norwich)
Match rating: 6/10Reuse content