Leicester City 1 Southampton 0: Ahead of this match with Southampton scarves with the slogan “Leicester City, Premier League champions 2016” were on sale outside the King Power Stadium.
Prior to kick-off they may have seemed a little premature, but by the time the final whistle went there could be no denying that Leicester’s remarkable season is closing in on a fairytale finish.
There was degree of a familiarity about this win which took Claudio Ranieri’s side seven points clear at the top of the Premier League.
The King Power Stadium was as atmospheric as ever as fans revelled in the free beers and doughnuts on offer to celebrate the chairman’s birthday.
On the pitch it was a similar story too as a fourth 1-0 victory in a row was achieved by a starting line-up that had remained unchanged for all of those wins.
Wes Morgan proved to be the hero this time and his header after 38 minutes was worthy of winning any match and fitting of his status as Leicester’s captain.
24 hours before the victory the centre-back had been suffering with flu, but the chance to extend a lead at the top of the table over Tottenham after their draw with Liverpool was incentive enough.
“We saw the [Tottenham] game yesterday was a draw and wanted to make the most of our opportunity,” said Morgan “We wanted it today. I’ve been getting a lot of stick because I haven’t scored all season so it’s great to shut them up. I was quite ill yesterday but obviously I wanted to play.”
Ranieri revealed after that before taking to the field his players had sung happy birthday to chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha. The Italian told the team to go and deliver the perfect present he deserved and they started like a team full of purpose.
Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki performed their usual act of chasing every lost ball and cause, while Riyad Mahrez tried to provide the magic spark.
Southampton’s back-five proved to be a formidable foil, though, and after 30 minutes of pressure the visitors almost took a shock lead. Sadio Mane burst clear from the halfway line, but after rounding Kasper Schmeichel in the Leicester goal he was denied by a retreating Danny Simpson. The defender appeared to use his arm to stop the effort and losing manager, Ronald Koeman was incensed.
“The chance of Mane is handball on his arm,” said Koeman. “If not the ball goes in. And it is not turning your body, he takes the risk. It is a penalty and a red card.
“I asked him [referee Michael Oliver] to see the clip, but I don’t think it is allowed for him to see the clip. But maybe tonight if he stays home with his family then he realises he did a big, big, big mistake today.”
Koeman felt the game changed after that moment and on the reflection he was perhaps right as within 10 minutes Leicester were ahead.
Christian Fuchs received the ball out on the left as Southampton failed to clear their lines from a free-kick. The German took his time and the pin-point cross was powered home by a leaping Morgan.
The King Power has grown accustomed to watching their side grind out 1-0 wins but this would prove to be one of the most torturous so far given what was at stake.
Leicester went close to doubling their lead as Fraser Forster made two fine saves to prevent a Jose Fonte own-goal and Danny Simpson’s effort from six yards out.
But while it remained 1-0 there was always the fear Southampton could spoil the party that was waiting to erupt in the Midlands.
Mane, who had been dangerous all match, cut inside and saw an effort fly over the bar and substitute Charlie Austin had claims for a penalty turned away, once again to Koeman’s annoyance. But Leicester held firm and a triumphant Ranieri saluted the crowd afterwards in the spring sunshine.
Chants of “we shall not be moved” and “we are going to win the league” echoed around the ground as supporters waved their champion scarves in delight.
A year ago to the day, Leicester were bottom of the table and seven points from safety. Now they top the Premier League by seven points. “I am very calm,” said Ranieri. “We believe in what we are doing. We believe it is a magical season. We believe next season will not be the same. We try to do our best.”
Ranieri is right, next season may not be the same. But on this evidence arguably the most unlikely story in football is about to get the fairytale ending no one predicted.
LEICESTER CITY (4-4-2):
Schmeichel 6; Simpson 7, Morgan 8, Huth 7, Fuchs 8; Mahrez 6 (78 Gray 6), Kante 7, Drinkwater 6, Albrighton 7 (89 Dyer 5); Okazaki 6 (62 Ulloa 5), Vardy 6.
Forster 7; Cedric 6, Van Dijk 7, Fonte 6, Bertrand 6, Targett 5 (45 Tadic 5); Davis 6 (72 Ward-Prowse 5), Wanyama 6, Clasie 6 (72 Austin 5), Mane 6; Pelle 6.
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