Everton prosper as Leicester stuck in relegation battle

A year ago, Leicester sat two points clear of Arsenal at the summit of the Premier League.

They had bagged 38 points from 18 opening games and no one gave them a prayer of doing the unthinkable.

Similarly few seriously believe that a side who can saunter into the Champions League knockout stages can be relegated.

But they sit just three points above the drop zone ahead of Saturday’s home visit of a rejuvenated West Ham and Claudio Ranieri has every reason to be worried.

Particularly at a time when last season’s PFA Players’ Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez is letting his club down so painfully.

Ranieri had predicted a tough campaign back in September but the reality of a relegation dogfight is biting hard.

“If you remember well, I think three months ago, I told everybody we are in the battle but I want to fight and I want to stay very concentrated on the little details,” the Italian said.

“The little details are like the first goal, to react early.”

With three key players, including talismanic striker Jamie Vardy suspended, Ranieri could ill afford to have Mahrez not firing on all cylinders.

The 25-year-old Algerian didn’t even make the starting 11, a far cry from last season when everything he touched turned to gold.

Ranieri explained the winger’s omission: “Because he’s not in good form now and I wanted to stimulate him. I didn’t see him do well during the training sessions and he must give more for the team. I want more.”

Ranieri will have been dismayed by the manner of Kevin Mirallas’ opener, although there was little anyone could have done to stop Romelu Lukaku’s injury-time finish as he outmuscled a clearly stretched Wes Morgan.

Mirallas’ strike came from a huge punt upfield from goalkeeper Joel Robles which put the striker clear of the two centre-backs.

Three touches is all it took and the ball deflected into the net off Marcin Wasilewski.

“We reacted a little late from the long kick but that is football,” Ranieri said.

By contrast, Ronald Koeman hailed the defensive spirit of his team as they registered a first away win since September.

“The team organisation defensively was outstanding,” he said. “Maybe they had one chance with a free header but it was not really a big chance.

“Idrissa Gueye had a fantastic opportunity to kill the game and finally Romelu did but it was important also to have a clean sheet for confidence. We showed the aggression in the performance that we want.”

As for the rather direct nature of the goals, Koeman explained it had all been worked out on the training pitch: “We like to play from the back but if the opponent is pressing, then we don’t take risks. Finally in the last part of the second half they did more pressing and then you need to play the long ball and you need to push up and you need to fight for second balls. I think we won a lot of battles in the second half which was good, and then you make it very difficult.”

Lukaku had been a virtual bystander until his late clincher with Koeman having to tell the Belgian to exert less energy in areas where he wasn’t effective: “My message to him at half-time was to say to him: ‘Sometimes you run too much. Stay in front, stay between the two centre-backs and for crosses you need to be in the box’. He is a striker who can score from crosses and he needs to be in the box because Lennon and Mirallas are different players.”

Whether it was an angry protest or a piece of festive fun following their failed appeal to release talisman Jamie Vardy from his three-match ban for his sending off against Stoke City, 30,000 Vardy masks were placed over the seats of the King Power Stadium.

Ranieri, tactfully, said he did not see the masks and could therefore not comment on whether it was an anti-FA statement.

With Leicester trailing to Mirallas’ opener, loud boos rang around the King Power Stadium as the lively Demarai Gray, arguably City’s best performer, was replaced by Leonardo Ulloa, with Mahrez also coming on for Andy King.

Within a minute Ulloa should have nodded home from Danny Simpson’s fine hanging diagonal ball but headed straight at Robles, who caught under the crossbar.

Everton should have wrapped things up when Lukaku squared for Gueye who somehow ballooned his effort over an open goal from six yards.

But in injury time and with Leicester pouring forward, Ross Barkley lashed a clearance forward from the edge of his own box.

The willing Lukaku shrugged aside Morgan’s challenge, sprinted towards the box, coasted past Marcin Wasilewski and finished beyond Kasper Schmeichel.

Two breakway goals from long balls they may have been but for Everton they were things of real beauty and for Leicester a wake-up call that they have to dig deep and sort out their domestic season.

LEICESTER CITY (4-4-2)then (4-3-3):

Schmeichel 6; Simpson 6, Wasilewski 5, Morgan 5, Chilwell 7; Gray 7 (Ulloa, 65, 6) King 6 (Mahrez, 65, 6), Amartey 6, Albrighton 6; Okazaki 5 (Drinkwater, h/t,6), Slimani 5.

Subs:

Hernandez, Musa, Zieler, Mendy.

EVERTON (3-4-2-1):

Robles 8; Holgate7, Williams8, Funes Mori 7; Coleman 6, Gueye 6, Barry 6 (Davies, 68), Baines 6; Lennon 6 (Cleverley, 87), Mirallas 7(Barkley, 76); Lukaku 7.

Subs:

Jagielka, Deulofeu, Valencia, Hewelt.

Referee:

Stuart Attwell


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