The Foxes have defied critics and it is the Gunners who must prove their title challenge is serious
13 February ~ After years of being just another club punching well below their weight, my team, Leicester City lead the Premier League in February. Claudio Ranieri and his players have been forced to prove themselves all season to critics: firstly told that they had been handed an easy start and, after the halfway point had passed, that they had not played any of the big teams away from home.
However, with recent wins at both Tottenham and Manchester City, most of the strongest detractors have finally been forced to admit that Leicester are indeed in the title race. Only the staunchest dissenters now persist in claiming that their lack of experience in a high-pressure situation will see them fall out of the running.
Yet the facts are there to suggest that the squad do have experience in pressured situations – arguably more so than some of their closest challengers. Eight of the current group were in the team which rose back to the Premier League after a ten-year absence, with tightening Financial Fair Play rules waiting to punish them for any failure. Less than a year later, 15 of them sat seven points from safety at the foot of the table in April, only to overcome the odds to maintain their spot in the league. Compared to those, leading a title race of which they have been told that they shouldn’t be a part of seems something of a cakewalk.
The pressures instead must sit with Leicester’s title rivals. For Arsenal, Sunday’s clash at the Emirates is the definition of a “must-win” game. After three league outings without a goal, they finally returned to winning ways against Bournemouth, but now find themselves five points behind the leaders. If this were to become eight, and with fixtures against Spurs, Manchester City and Manchester United still to come, all of a sudden a title dream could quickly transform into yet another chase for fourth place.
Since Arsenal claimed three points at the King Power back in September, Leicester have improved significantly. The leaky defence has been transformed into an almost unbreachable wall, yet with little impact on their attacking prowess. Since the 5-2 defeat, the Foxes have kept eight clean sheets – including five in the last seven games. The Arsenal front line won’t have it so easy this time around.
Still though, despite Leicester holding the league’s strongest away record, a five-point lead over their opponents and recording just two defeats all season, it is the home side who head into the game as favourites. Just as it was in Manchester last week, a Leicester win would be marked as a surprise, as if nothing had been learnt over the last five months.
But it shouldn’t be a surprise. This team have been proving themselves all season – they are just having to work much harder to do it than anyone else. Ryan Hubbard