Riyad Mahrez strikes again to leave Leicester in dreamland
LONDON -- Three points from Crystal Palace 0-1 Leicester in the Premier League as Claudio Ranieri's men claimed a critical win in their pursuit of the title.
Title looms for Leicester
It's getting closer. Leicester's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park on Saturday took them eight points clear at the top, at least until Tottenham play Bournemouth on Sunday.
It was an impressively unfussy, controlled victory from a team now winning in the manner of champions. This was Leicester's fourth 1-0 victory in their past five league games -- a scoreline they'd recorded just once before that run this season -- against Crystal Palace back in October.
Their early-season performances, when they were seemingly enjoying a good run of form rather than launching a title challenge, were about end-to-end matches and stirring comebacks. They've evolved significantly since then, becoming more professional, winning matches with a minimum of fuss and exerting control for long periods.
At 0-0 they spent plenty of time without the ball as Palace built pressure, but this is when Leicester are at their best, able to transfer the ball into the path of forward duo Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki quickly, or getting Riyad Mahrez running toward goal down the right. The combination among these three was impressive, particularly when Danny Drinkwater motored forward to become involved too.
At 1-0 they were solid defensively, their back four dominating the penalty box, protected well by the excellent duo of Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante. Drinkwater, recently called up to the England squad, was outstanding here, often dropping back to defend the near post when Palace crossed.
On the one occasion when Leicester's centre-backs were exposed against pace in the second half, with Yannick Bolasie dribbling dangerously down the left, captain Wes Morgan put in a thunderous tackle to save the day.
Magician Mahrez seals victory
This game was utterly dominated by Leicester's sensational right winger Mahrez, who terrorised Crystal Palace left-back Pape Souare and opened the scoring with a precise low shot from Vardy's low ball from the left.
Mahrez's threat had become obvious. Palace were so scared of his electrifying pace that manager Alan Pardew asked regular central midfielder Joe Ledley to spend most of the time to the left of Palace's midfield, attempting to double up against Mahrez and prevent him from cutting inside.
Mahrez's response was to push higher up the pitch into a position where Ledley couldn't help. This, combined with Souare's erratic positioning, created the clearest chance at 0-0. Leicester won possession deep inside their own half, and Drinkwater immediately hit a long ball into Palace's left-back zone, perfectly into the path of Mahrez. The Algerian dribbled forward and steadied himself but shot straight at goalkeeper Wayne Hennessey. It could have been a crucial miss.
The problem with Mahrez's attack-minded positioning was that it left Danny Simpson exposed at right-back. Bolasie, Ledley and Souare all popped up in his zone, as Palace continually built pressure down their left flank. Palace had three crosses from that flank at 0-0, including their best chance of the first half, when Bolasie's deep cross was clumsily prodded past the far post by Wilfried Zaha. Bolasie's deflected shot also forced Kasper Schmeichel into a reaction save, though the Dane might not have known much about it.
But Mahrez justifies his positioning with his end product. He's been involved in more Premier League goals than anyone else this season, with 16 goals and 11 assists.
This was one of his less spectacular efforts -- a simple left-footed shot under no pressure from close range -- but it could prove to be crucial.
Palace woe continues
Pardew is very popular at Selhurst Park, and fans have memories of his successful period as a player here. He reached the 1990 FA Cup final, many Palace fans' proudest moment, while he impressed when taking charge as a manager midway through last season.
It's a good job he built up that goodwill, however, otherwise there would be serious calls for him to be dismissed.
Palace are in the FA Cup semifinals, but they haven't won a league game since before Christmas. It's a staggeringly bad run, though Pardew will be mightily relieved that it is unlikely to prove fatal. There are some truly terrible teams in this season's Premier League cut adrift at the bottom, in Aston Villa, Newcastle and Sunderland, but this is nevertheless an extremely worrying spell for Palace.
Pardew experienced something similar a couple of seasons ago in charge of Newcastle, when his side played extremely well before Christmas and then dropped off. It's difficult to explain precisely why. He doesn't work his side particularly hard physically. It could be a simple case of players becoming disillusioned with his man-management skills.
Palace weren't terrible on Saturday against the best side in the division. Bolasie was lively, while Mile Jedinak remains excellent at patrolling the midfield zone.
Too many players underperformed, though. Souare was substituted at half-time because he was being ineffective against Mahrez. Emmanuel Adebayor was also sacrificed, having been invisible.
But perhaps the biggest problem is Yohan Cabaye. Arguably the signing of last summer and outstanding in the first few months of the campaign, he struggled to influence the game, with Pardew moving him from the top of the midfield trio to a deeper role, and then back again, in attempt to get him on the ball.
Palace supporters are inevitably looking forward to Wembley, but the players can't afford to take their eye off the league just yet.
Michael Cox is the editor of zonalmarking.net and a contributor to ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Zonal_Marking.