By the time Spring comes in the Premier League, there’s dead rubbers all over the place and certain teams looking to book holidays. So, focusing on the games that mattered at either end of the table – 5 things we learned from the weekend:
Leicester can rout teams too
No Vardy, no problem. Leonardo Ulloa scored twice in a charged Leicester performance that blew past Swansea and put them eight points clear at the top of the table in April. (Read that sentence again). The very same Leonardo Ulloa who was so awful before Christmas has come back to play a crucial part in the title challenge. Sunday was his best showing yet. Even if Vardy returns from suspension, Ulloa may be in with an outside chance of starting but Ranieri will surely recognise that his best team includes Okazaki and Vardy up front. The Argentine also suffered a minor back injury which could harm his chances.
There were new contributors that made their mark too. Schlupp did begin the season as the starting left back but was an absolute livewire in his first start in 2016. Listed as a defender in fantasy, he’s worth a look in as Leicester’s defence will to keep securing clean sheet after clean sheet. Demarai Gray continues to improve after looking completely out of his depth, his blistering run down the right flank eventually culminating in Leicester’s fourth goal. A game to prove that Leicester aren’t a one man team and a game to prove that they don’t just scrape by in these games.
Riyad Mahrez stepping up in a huge way
It’s been an interesting period for Mahrez and one that’s difficult to fairly evaluate. He’s been having less of the ball, marked much more diligently and then as a result put in a couple of torrid performances. Yet at the same time he managed to concentrate his impact into singular, pivotal events. In that well-documented series of 1-0 wins – Leicester’s impersonation of Euro 2004 Greece – Mahrez came up with two winning goals in games against feisty physical opponents.
If ever there was a time for the return of the gliding, free-flowing and PFA Player of the Year award winning Algerian – it was now. Vardy’s absence meant Leicester couldn’t stretch Swansea across the length of the pitch so easily, requiring more patient building of attacks. Mahrez responded to his increased responsibility resoundingly. Neil Taylor had no chance of covering him and the finish after Ashley Williams’ error was never in doubt. If Vardy’s absence is prolonged, Mahrez showed that he can turn it up when the stakes are highest.
Allardyce has finally made Sunderland defend some
After looking like the softest team since Fulham in their relegation season, Sam Allardyce has managed to drill some defensive resilience into this tepid squad, helped by his January signings. They still look favourites to claim that final spot outside of the bottom 3 as Norwich are floundering and Newcastle’s mini-revival under Rafa Benitez might be coming too late.
Jan Kirchoff has been a steady, if not completely mobile, presence directly in front of that shaky back 4. Just as important, perhaps more so, has been the uptick in general intensity and tempo from Sunderland’s forwards without the ball. Jermaine Defoe still won’t do much, but Wahbi Kazhri’s quality is matched by a tenacity that showed against Arsenal. Fabio Borini’s only virtue is putting himself about a bit. Despite all this, no-one should be too eager to make a late-season play for Sunderland defenders in fantasy.
Spurs will make deep lying teams pay more often than they won’t
In what became a deflating night for Spurs it’d be easy to forget that for 45 minutes this was another blitzing performance from Mauricio Pochettino’s men. West Brom lined up in their typical 9-0-1 formation with faux wingers but it did little to stop the home side from breaking through and creating chances at a high frequency. Boaz Myhill did well to push Harry Kane’s shot onto the post and Christian Eriksen threatened with a long range free kick. When the goal did come it was in ugly fashion but well deserved. One simple set piece forcing Craig Dawson to put into his own net. Alas, this would not be the defender’s last involvement in the match.
Even in the early stages of the second half when West Brom finally made their presence felt, Erik Lamela hit the post after another flowing move. It was a stark reminder of how drastically this team has improved and at the very thing that the team struggled to do for so long. Since Harry Redknapp’s iteration, Spurs haven’t been a team that flowed as such. Now, they’re cutting teams open with a movement and a flair that has led them very nearly to a title. The only issue in the short-term is…
Dele Alli may be missed
Referee Mike Jones missed this little incident but the rest of the viewing masses didn’t. As Spurs held on to their 1-0 lead, the recently named PFA Young Player of the Year concluded another one of his off-ball runs he span on the spot and landed an iffy punch into Claudio Yacob’s midriff. It wasn’t anything to compare to Anthony Joshua but it still didn’t look good on tape. Provocation was unclear but the pair had a previous coming together in the first half.
It seemed set to hang over the events of the night, marring another Spurs win until Dawson did that for them. If Alli is indeed banned, it’s a huge blow for this team which relies on him heavily to make the incisive cuts around Kane. Eriksen is a key cog in the attack but getting in behind isn’t his game at all and Lamela just doesn’t do it as well. Heung-Son Min will likely come into the side – this is by no means the level of drop-off that Leicester experienced going from Vardy to Ulloa – but the loss of Alli, who’s breakthrough season was wholly unprecedented, is one that might just crumple Spurs’ title challenge once and for all.