Again it was Riyadh Mahrez who made the difference, with the only goal of the game, and again Ranieri and his players played down the looming prospect of Leicester becoming Premier League champions. Yet this most unlikely of title races is heading towards an unthinkable climax, both at this time last year, when Leicester were rock bottom of the table, and at the start of the season when Ranieri was appointed manager. The Italian’s track record in recent years did not suggest he would lead the Foxes in a hunt for silverware, and indeed as Jamie Vardy pointed out: “Everyone said we were relegation fodder. It was every newspaper and every pundit, wasn’t it? No-one gave us a chance.”
But “The Tinkerman’ tag doesn’t ring true for Vardy, who has seen Ranieri arrive and make subtle tweaks rather than wholesale changes to the side Nigel Pearson built and who saved themselves from relegation by winning seven of their remaining nine games this time last year.
A repeat now would take Leicester to a first top-flight title, and make nonsense of their pre-season title odds of 5,000/1. Vardy, however, is not looking that far ahead, repeating his manager’s mantra ‘the next game is the most important’. That it comes against struggling Newcastle makes no difference to this team, who treat all opposition with equal respect – or should that be disrespect?
Certainly they went at Watford as if they were playing Man City, chasing down every lost cause, working incessantly and then producing a moment of match-winning magic. Mahrez’s curling shot to beat Heurelho Gomes in the 56th minute was his 16th goal of the season.
Vardy missed a great chance to add to his own tally of 19, but was happy with the win and praised his manager, criticising those who were dismissive of Ranieri’s appointment. “I don’t know why he got dismissed. He has got a great CV,” said the striker who has blossomed into a prolific scorer this season.
“He has come in, we have done well and are top of the league at the minute. He has not had to tweak too much. He has done on certain things. But he knew he had a good set of lads, and as long as we are fighting for each other and playing well he is more than happy. He says he does not mind if we win, lose or draw as long as we are showing that spirit between the boys and that we are trying.
Ranieri trusts his players, as he showed by giving them a week off following their defeat at Arsenal three weeks ago. Away from home and the training ground, they were trusted to keep up their fitness and not over-indulge themselves, and responded in style, with seven points from the following three games to increase their lead at the top. “It wasn’t a gamble at all,” said Vardy.
“It gave us a much-needed break and let us recharge our batteries. Every single one of us went away and did our own stuff while we were away. We all made sure we took our GPS units with us, checking heart rates and that. So the staff at the club know we’ve been doing our own work while we’ve been over there on our vacations. You know with our lads everyone will take it seriously and we’ll carry on doing our own training in our own time.”
Despite Ranieri’s half-hearted assertion he and the players did not know Tottenham and Arsenal had drawn on Saturday lunchtime, the players had sat down in the team hotel to watch the north London derby between second and third.
“Everyone saw the result earlier,” added Vardy. “I watched the first-half just before I went for pre-match, there were quite a few of us. We’re footballers. We like to watch football. We got down a bit early because it was the first live game on TV.”
The result was ideal for Leicester, but as Vardy said: “At the end of the day we know it is up to us and we’ve got to keep performing ourselves. No matter what the result earlier, we knew we needed to come to Watford and get three points. We’ve done that and we’re happy.”
Gomes 7; Nyom 6 (Anya 81) Prodl 6 Ake 6 Holebas 5; Amrabat 7 Suarez 6 (Aldi 65) Watson 5 Capoue 6 (Oulare 87); Deeney 6 Ighalo 6
Schmeichel 6; Simpson 6 Huth 6 Morgan 6 Fuchs 6; Mahrez 8 (Amartey 85), Drinkwater 7 Kante 7 Albrighton 6 (Schlupp 46); Vardy 7 Okazaki 7 (King 46)