A photo in the papers on Thursday morning, from the previous night’s PSG-Man City game, pretty much sums up where we’re at as football negotiates the fabled run-in.
Across all platforms, as they say — the League of Ireland excepted, of course — we’ve arrived at what Alex Ferguson memorably dubbed ‘squeaky bum time’, which is why a moment from the Parc des Princes, frozen in time by an alert snapper, speaks volumes.
The pic shows Fernandinho scuffing City’s 73rd minute equaliser against the hosts, the ball taking a diverting blow off the backside of Thiago Silva on its way to the net while another PSG defender lies on the turf and David Luiz looks on with an expression on his face which suggests he’s just bitten into a lemon.
Welcome to the creme de la creme of European, and some like to maintain, world football. City’s squeaky bum goal was entirely in keeping with a game whose entertainment value — which, admittedly, was considerable — owed much to the most striking aspect of the night’s proceedings: the proliferation of mistakes which repeatedly threatened to turn one of the most high-profile matches of the season into a comedy of errors.
And it wasn’t just the wildly unpredictable Luiz who was at fault, hard though he tried to claim exclusive rights to the role of fall guy. Even the great Zlatan, when he wasn’t getting on the scoresheet thanks to City’s embarrassingly abject attempt to play out from the back, seemed intent on showcasing his feet of clay, from having a penalty saved by Joe Hart to sending a shot over the top when put through one on one with the goalkeeper.
In that latter incident, it was hard not to imagine Messi nonchalantly lobbing the ‘keeper but, strangely in tune with the week’s reign of error in Europe, the world’s greatest player also had something of an off night as Barcelona struggled to get the better of 10-man Atletico Madrid in their Champions League quarter-final first leg. One couldn’t help wondering if he might have been a tad distracted by what it says in the (Panama) papers.
Of course, Messi having a bad night at the office is relative: He still managed to come close to scoring one of the goals of the season when, having controlled the ball on his chest, his overhead kick dropped just the wrong side of the post.
But, once again, this was a night defined more by self-destruction than creativity, with Barcelona’s always fragile defence all too easily ripped apart for Fernando Torres’ opening goal before the striker needlessly shipped two yellow cards which, to the hosts’ advantage, turned the game into a prolonged exercise of attack v defence. Luis Suarez’s brace duly gave the home side a narrow lead in the tie but, for all that Barca can justifiably boast one of the most potent attacking tridents in football history, those lapses in concentration at the back always threaten to negate their best work.
Such is the fantastic flair and firepower of Messi, Neymar and Suarez, that you would still have to have Barca down as favourites to win the competition but, in seeking to emulate the Milan side which was the last team to claim back to back European Cups — in 1989 and ‘90 — the Catalans still suffer when compared with a team which boasted all-time great defenders like Baresi and Maldini, not to mention a couple of handy strikers in their own right, by the name of Gullit and Van Basten.
Still, Barca’s current cause is certainly not being hindered by their most lauded opponents, with Bayern Munich labouring to a 1-0 home victory over Benfica and Real Madrid, having only just beaten their El Clasico rivals at the Nou Camp, brought crashing back down to earth when shocked 2-0 by Wolfsburg.
The prevailing sense of slipping standards at the very top of the game finds its most vivid manifestation in the Premier League where it has become commonplace to attribute Leicester City’s remarkable title bid, at least in part, to brute failings among the opposition.
And there is certainly more than a grain of truth in that when you consider the various underwhelming attempts, ranging from the shocking to the all too predictable, of last season’s top four finishers — Chelsea, Manchester City, Arsenal and Manchester United — to make a proper go of things this time around.
But, in fairness to Leicester, it’s not simply a question of them capitalising on the weaknesses of others; their own minimising of error ought to be a lesson to all the rest.
At no point have concentration levels or work-rate slipped: In those crucial areas of the game, they are still doing now what they were doing at the start of the season — and, indeed, at the end of the last one, when the seeds of an on-going miracle were sown.
Claudio Ranieri revealed earlier this week that he’d been informed at the beginning of his tenure that the club’s target for the season was simply to stay in the Premier League.
“We have to stay safe,” he was told.
But, better, much better than that, Leicester are not only safe — they’re sound. Especially on the fundamentals.
The closer they’ve gotten to the Holy Grail, the more they’ve tightened up at the back. Games are still being won but now they’re being founded on keeping clean sheets and trusting that the magic of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez will make the difference at the other end.
And if it doesn’t, then a Wes Morgan or a Robert Huth will turn up at a set-piece to do their bit. Meanwhile, Danny Drinkwater is hardly putting a foot wrong in the middle.
As for the indefatigable N’Golo Kante, well, he’s only gone and inspired what Gary Lineker has called the best football tweet of the year: “70% of the planet is covered by water, the rest is by N’Golo Kante.”
The truth is that there is no shortage of quality talent in this Leicester side but, man for man, the same and more could be said of half a dozen teams in the Premier League.
So what, ultimately, is making the difference?
In his recent first-person piece for an American sports website, Ranieri got to the heart of what the Leicester story is all about.
“This is a small club that is showing the world what can be achieved through spirit and determination. Twenty-six players. Twenty-six different brains. But one heart. Now we are fighting for a title.
“The Leicester fans I meet in the street tell me they are dreaming. But I say to them, ‘Okay, you dream for us. We do not dream. We simply work hard.”
While all around them are falling short of the highest standards, on the day that’s in it, you can’t help thinking that only a Devon Loch collapse can stop Leicester City now.
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