For all the well-wishes and patronising pats on the back Leicester have earned this season, Tuesday night may well have seen Man City and Arsenal fans anxiously thumb the Foxes fixture list for the very first time. Claudio Ranieri’s boys have stuck around much longer than expected.
For their part, Tottenham fans are not, as they do at some point every season, simply heralding a swing in the balance of power in North London, they are daring to dream a little bigger.
City remain favourites while Arsenal have hit a slump, but everything could have swung once more by St Valentine’s evening, when the four contenders double-date in a genuine ‘Super Sunday’ showdown.
Here we examine the dynamics of the title run-in.
For all his know-how, Claudio Ranieri has never claimed a top-flight title in his career and most of his players have not been in this position before.
Ranieri helped Chelsea to second place in 2004, claimed the Ligue 2 crown with Monaco in 2013 and won Serie B with Fiorentina in 1994. Like Manuel Pellegrini and Arsene Wenger, he has the longevity. but not the experience of winning a top-flight crown.
Robert Huth has two Premier League winners’ medals from his Chelsea days and Gokhan Inler has won the Swiss Super League twice, but this is new territory for the majority of the Leicester dressing room.
The core of Manchester City’s squad helped them to their two titles in 2012 and 2014, while Mesut Ozil and Alexis Sanchez have won Spain’s Primera Division, and Arsenal’s Germans can boast a World Cup, but only Petr Cech (Chelsea) and Danny Welbeck (Manchester United) have lifted the Premier League trophy.
Mauricio Pochettino has yet to lift any managerial honours, while among the Spurs squad (the youngest in the league) Toby Alderweireld and Christian Eriksen have three Eredivisie titles with Ajax. Jan Vertonghen was a team-mate for two of those.
Advantage: Man City
Before last night’s fixtures, Tottenham were joint top (with West Ham) of the Premier League form table, with 13 points from their last six matches.
Leicester and Man City occupied third and fourth with 12 points, but Arsenal lay just ninth, with nine points and without a win in four matches or a goal in three.
“It’s true, that we’ve had a stuttering start in 2016,” admitted Arsene Wenger on Tuesday night.
“Our January was bad, starting from the last minute at Liverpool, and then at Stoke. Where we especially have a big deficit is in our two home games. We have to catch that back and we have a difficult programme, especially away from home. We need to respond quickly away from home now.”
The Arsenal goalscorers have also dried up at the wrong time, though Alexis Sanchez looks on the verge of shaking off any injury rust.
After enduring his own drought, Leicester’s Jamie Vardy now has three in his last two and 18 league goals overall. Tottenham’s Harry Kane has 14 goals in his last 15 Premier League, while Sergio Aguero has 12 in 10.
Advantage: Man City
Call them 14 cup finals if you must, but Ranieri can focus his side on the run-in without the interference of cup or European duties. That kind of tunnel vision — and freshness — brought Liverpool so close in 2014.
Pellegrini accepts it hands Leicester a significant advantage. Manchester City could play 26 more matches if they carry the fight to the end on all four fronts, while Arsenal could play 25, though Barcelona are likely to have uncomplicated the Gunners’ calendar by the middle of March.
It is Tottenham who must prioritise. Faced with a demanding, but winnable, Europa League last-32 tie with Fiorentina and a home fifth-round FA Cup tie with Crystal Palace, Pochettino knows his young side couldn’t possibly manage the 27 matches needed to go the distance in all three competitions.
According to physioroom.com, Manchester City have limped to the top of the Premier League Injury Table with Aston Villa and Liverpool.
Along with Jesus Navas, who suffered a damaged a hamstring against Sunderland on Tuesday, Pellegrini has six other injured stars: Fabian Delph, Kevin De Bruyne, Wilfried Bony, Eliaquim Mangala, Samir Nasri, and, perhaps most crucially, skipper Vincent Kompany.
Jan Vertonghen’s knee injury is Tottenham’s biggest worry, though Ryan Mason is also out for another week or so.
Arsenal seem to be over the worst of their perennial injury blight, with just Jack Wilshere, Tomas Rosicky, and Santi Cazorla still sidelined, though Cazorla’s possible late March return may be too late for a struggling Gunners midfield.
Leicester have managed to keep their players remarkably fit all season. All medical attention is currently focussed on Jeff Schlupp’s hamstring, though Matty James has missed the entire campaign with a cruciate ligament injury.
There are five head-to-heads remaining among the top four:
Feb 6: Man City v Leicester
Feb 14: Arsenal v Leicester
Feb 14: Man City v Tottenham
Mar 5: Tottenham v Arsenal
May 7: Man City v Arsenal
We will know much more about Leicester’s prospects in 10 days, after they’ve negotiated away trips to the Etihad and Emirates stadiums. Perhaps even more important will be how Ranieri’s side reacts in the nine winnable-looking games that follow, before a cruel climax sends them to Old Trafford and Stamford Bridge in the last fortnight.
The North London derby on March 5 could potentially be the most relevant league meeting of the sides in a generation, while, crucially, Manchester City are at home for all three of their big-ticket ties. Even from this distance — see calculations above — the visit of Arsenal on May 7 has the look of a title decider. If that comes to pass, what price another Aguerooooo moment?
Advantage: Man City
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