BY SCOTT DAVIES
City traveled to Crystal Palace going in search of a win to go 8 points clear, for 24 hours at least. Selhurst Park has always been a tough place to go, however, despite a good cup run they are on a poor run of league form having not won a league game this calendar year. Their last league win was 19th December against Stoke and they were 5th at that stage with Alan Pardew was talking of Europe.
Claudio Ranieri has been a little more subdued than Alan Pardew with the potential fortunes for his Team and has played down their form all season, fending off persistent questioning of where the Foxes are going to finish. Expectations may well have been the downfall of The Eagles, whilst City venture on ‘Slowly, Slowly’.
There was little surprise with the line up with an unchanged squad from Monday nights win v Newcastle. King still absent from the bench with illness, however a slight hamstring niggle has also been cited as a cause for his absence and being emitted from the Wales squad. Inler once again stepped in on the bench, but the Swiss Captain will be feeling a little jaded as he hasn’t made the Swiss squad for the next two friendlies with lack of game time being the cause.
Roy Hodgson was present and presumably there to watch Danny Drinkwater following his England call up in midweek. No doubt Vardy was under the spotlight and this game would have given Simpson and Albrighton the opportunity to shine also.
Palace have some good players and City would need to be on top of their game with Bolasie and Zaha as two potential threats going forward with pace in abundance.
One thing I noticed and I made reference to before the game was that the Crystal Palace warm up was somewhat disjointed and front loaded towards defensive duties. City however were intense, well drilled and regimented in their approach working through every aspect from front to back.
Both teams started brightly, but City had an edge about them. They were focused from the off and were alert to every threat fired their way. Yanick Bolasie gave Leicester food for thought throughout and forced a save from Schmeichel to his left on 3 minutes.
Leicester were playing some excellent football and on 18 minutes, Mahrez should have done better from a delightful Danny Drinkwater through ball that was perfectly weighted. Had Vardy been on the end, I think he’d have buried it. Mahrez somewhat rushed his shot, however some credit has to go to Hennessey who got his body in the way, enough for Scott Dann to clear his lines.
Mahrez made no such mistake on 34 though. Albrighton broke forward down the left before cutting inside and playing it out to Mahrez. The Algerian delivered a cross into Okazaki only for the Palace backline to clear. The ball fell to Drinkwater who played it first time to Vardy with England’s number 9 twisting and turning picking out Mahrez who slotted home with a left footed shot from the centre of the box to put City 1-0 up.
The Foxes fans were wild and never stopped singing throughout with blue flares being set off. It was as if they are now really starting to believe the title will be ours. I’ve always been impressed with the Crystal Palace support, but they really could not be heard.
The Eagles had to go in search of a leveller and on 37, Schmeichel had work to do to keep out a deflected Bolasie shot after he’d found space down the left. If a goal was to come for Palace then it would have been from wing play where they possessed the most danger.
That said, Mahrez and Simpson worked in tandem as did Fuchs and the brilliant Albrighton. 4 players who cost just over £2.5 million between them. They hunted, hassled, battled and quashed every threat Palace threw at them. Morgan and Huth were colossal at centre back, Drinkwater and Kante bossed the middle and Vardy and Okazaki defended from the front.
Marc Albrighton went close on 40, forcing a good save from Hennessey after some good work by Christian Fuchs. The Foxes deservedly led at half time.
Pardew made two changes at the break with Souare and Adebayor being replaced by Martin Kelly and Bakary Sako respectively.
Palace were better second half, but City still had chances to put the game to bed. Okazaki did well on 47 after some neat team play and eventual through ball by Albrighton, however the Japanese striker fired over and will feel he should have done better. Again on 56, Okazaki headed over from 6 yards after Fuchs had split the Palace backline with a superb cross.
Bakary Sako drew a save from Schmeichel on 74 and they continued to press for an equaliser. Morgan and Huth had other ideas as they bullied and fought toe to toe with everything thrown at them. Huth should have had a penalty when he was wrestled to the ground with the shirt being taken off his back in the process.
Okazaki made way for Ulloa on 76 which has been a favoured change of Ranieri all season long. Okazaki just runs till he drops and Ulloa sures things up at the front in the later stages.
Schmeichel had to be alert again in 83 as Sako hit a shot from outside the box with the Dane beating the ball out for a corner, taking no chances with the rasping effort.
Mahrez was replaced by Schlupp late on and Amartey came on for Vardy in added time.
On 92, Hearts were in mouths for the Foxes faithful as a slight mix up at the back led to Ulloa conceding a corner, with the resulting set piece being crashed against the angle of post and crossbar from City old boy Damian Delaney.
The final whistle went and scenes of pure jubilation followed from every one of the 3000 following supporters. A full 30 minutes of ‘We’re going to win the league’ ensued before a voice on the tannoy system thanked the fans for attending and asking them to leave the ground!
Ranieri refused to be drawn into title talk, however he came the closest to accepting it was in our sights by saying ‘if someone goes above us, they are champions, well done them’. He accepts Europa league is ours, Champions League is close, but the title? I’m with him, let’s take each game as it comes, savoir the moment and move on.
As I’m writing, Spurs have just won 3-0 and are still snapping at our heals. If we win 3 games, they’d have to win 5 of 7 with us not gaining another point. Food for thought.
Man of the Match – Marc Albrighton.
Watch FAN CAM from The trip to The Palace below