One down, six to go for Leicester City.
With one nod of Wes Morgan’s head and another Herculean home effort to see off Southampton, their unrelenting march towards the Premier League title, which has the entire world talking, hurtled past yet another blockade in the East Midlands sun.
Victories by a solitary goal, of which this was Leicester’s fifth in six matches, have so often proven to be the staple of title successes of bygone years.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the former Manchester United manager who devoured 13 league championships in 27 years at Old Trafford, is head lecturer in that department. The Scot reaffirmed his belief this week that Leicester can cap off a season of fantasy football with the most improbable of realities: Morgan hoisting the Premier League trophy aloft.
Southampton, marshalled by the astute Ronald Koeman, were always likely to represent the steepest of hurdles to their grand designs and that ultimately proved to be the case.
It took every ounce of the tireless endeavour which has got Leicester here, to the cusp of football immortality, to see the hosts over the line in front of a bouncing home crowd.
Jamie Vardy, fresh from his goal-scoring exploits for England, against Germany and the Netherlands, stalked José Fonte and Virgil van Dijk until the final blow of Michael Oliver’s whistle. The former Fleetwood striker is merely the poster-boy, however, for the most workmanlike team in the top-flight.
It was Louis van Gaal, a shadow of Ferguson at United, who labelled the annual fight for the title as a rat race 12 months ago. As his ailing side sit among other members of the football establishment in obscurity this term, the Dutchman is being proved right from the most unlikely of sources.
Claudio Ranieri, typecast as a red phone box in the smartphone age last August, revealed in the week that he has never encountered such a united squadron of players in 30 years of management.
“We are fighters,” he enthused, with a typically wry smile and a wink. N'Golo Kanté and Danny Drinkwater, quite possibly the most feared midfield unit in the land, commanded the centre-ground throughout, not allowing Victor Wanyama nor Steven Davis a moment’s peace to settle in possession.
Following an utterly dominant opening half-hour for the hosts, the Saints began to emerge from a shell of their own making. Their pre-match stratagem to lure Leicester in and counter was failing. Matt Targett, the left-back, began to gallop down the flank with menace while Cedric Soares followed suit on the other side.
But Leicester’s undying desire to win prevailed in the end. Morgan, the hosts’ ever-present captain, continued his pitch-perfect season with the clincher in the 38th minute.
Moments after a penalty scare involving Danny Simpson’s elbow, deflecting wide a Sadio Mané shot otherwise destined to find the net, Ranieri’s boys were ahead.
Morgan missed the entirety of pre-season while on duty with Jamaica, his adopted national side, but has shown not a hint of fatigue as the screw begins to turn.
Christian Fuchs, ensnared from Schalke in the summer by Nigel Pearson on a free transfer, curled the ball onto Morgan’s head, sparking pandemonium in the stands. The King Power has never roared so loudly – a statement in itself.
Ranieri’s militia of bargain buys and forgotten men know they can now secure Champions League qualification in the coming weeks but Southampton, too, harbour dreams of European football.
Seven points adrift of fourth-placed Manchester City at the start of play, the Saints showed flickers of the attacking brilliance which left Liverpool on their backsides at St Mary’s before the international interval.
Instead of playing past the visitors, something they are indeed capable off, Leicester made it a battle of wills. They bullied their way to three points, forging a seven-point lead atop of the table based on old-fashioned blood and sweat.
While the six remaining matches of an irrepressible campaign present the very real opportunity for tears, it’s Leicester’s to lose now. Ranieri couldn’t ask for more than that.
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