Leicester City take their chance in gritty victory at Watford
WATFORD, England -- Three observations from Leicester City's 1-0 triumph over Watford at Vicarage Road.
1. Leicester take their chance
Destiny is firmly in their hands. The crazy dream of Leicester City winning the Premier League title nears reality. At Watford, they won somewhat ugly, edging an encounter high on grit and low on aesthetics, enduring a late onslaught from the hosts.
Leicester's winning, though, will be recalled by Foxes fans as a piece of pure, unadulterated beauty: Riyad Mahrez's 56th minute goal, a curling strike struck venomously beyond the wingspan of Watford goalkeeper Heurelho Gomes, with the hint of a deflection.
It broke the deadlock in a match that had previously threatened to be a turgid stalemate, leaving Claudio Ranieri's team with a lone victory in their last four matches. Instead, Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City are eating dust; Leicester are keeping their nerve where their rivals have repeatedly failed to do so.
That Leicester would end the weekend at the top of the table no matter what happened at Watford already betrayed chasers' failings. The 2-2 North London derby played earlier on Saturday held great regrets for both Tottenham and Arsenal, leaving them powerless to prevent a lead of five points on Spurs and a gaping eight on the Gunners. A sense of helplessness can now be shared between those historic rivals, as well as City, 10 points back, and whose 4-0 defeat of Aston Villa had the look of too little, too late.
It had seemed that nerves could halt the Foxes flight when Leicester missed the best chance of the first half in the 22nd minute when Mahrez laid the ball across to Jamie Vardy and the Premier League's top-scorer dragged his shot wide of the post. Among Leicester fans at the other end of the ground, wild celebrations were curtailed as they realised the ball had not gone in.
These are nervous, expectant times for supporters living out what once seemed impossible, and hearts were definitely in mouths when the ball fell to an unmarked Troy Deeney, though the Watford captain could only hit the ball straight into the grateful arms of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Ranieri's half-time introduction of Jeff Schlupp and Andy King for Shinji Okazaki and Marc Albrighton reflected the Italian's own sense of urgency. In ever lowering temperatures, the first-half had seen neither side wishing to overcommit.
The Italian took a gamble that paid out a fast return and after Mahrez struck, the away fans could sing of winning the Premier League and next season's European tour, concentrating on that perhaps as an attempt to level out their jangling emotions. Their team had to dig in for victory, with an Odion Ighalo's 80th minute header again straight at Schmeichel and from mere yards out fraying the nerves, but that was as close as Watford came.
2. Kante needs help to prosper
The swift return for Leicester of N'Golo Kante, a player with heavy claims to be the most effective midfielder in this season's Premier League, seemed timely. But perhaps it was a little ahead of schedule, considering he missed just a single match after a hamstring problem.
During Tuesday's 2-2 draw with West Brom, Kante's absence had been lamented, particularly in shielding what is hardly a mobile central defence in Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. Here, Kante did not fizz with the effervescence he showed in matches like December's home victory against Chelsea or last month's late 2-1 defeat at Arsenal. In Etienne Capoue, Watford have an all-action midfielder of similar qualities though with a more attacking detail, and the aggressive Ben Watson and Mario Suarez backing up Watford's Frenchman.
When Kante is a reduced force, it becomes harder for Danny Drinkwater, another breakout star of the campaign, to dictate play and feed the likes of Mahrez and Albrighton on the flanks. Only occasionally did the Mancunian playmaker find space to hit his trademark diagonals to the wings.
And as a result, the dancing feet of Mahrez and the jet heels of Vardy were not involved nearly as much as Leicester desired to force home victory against their ultra-organised opponent. However, Ranieri's introduction of King, a survivor of the club's League One days, gave Kante and Drinkwater some much-needed assistance in midfield, and Watford were pinned back enough for Mahrez to score.
3. Watford drought continues
Goals have become a problem for Watford. Ighalo's failure to score during a 1-0 defeat at Manchester United on Wednesday, despite multiple opportunities, reflected the Nigerian's importance to his team's season. Since he dried up, so have his team's results. Only the desperately out-of-form Crystal Palace and Championship club Leeds had conceded to Quique Sanchez Flores' team in the last month's five matches.
In an alternate universe to the mad world of the 2015-16 Premier League, this might have been a relegation six-pointer, but with Watford already on 37 points, it was actually a dangerous mid-table team against runaway leaders.
The home team adopted the formula that previously bore fruit at Vicarage Road in beating the likes of Liverpool and West Ham, sitting deep and hoping that Deeney or Capoue might feed Ighalo. That Leicester used a similar tactical approach became problematic for entertainment levels in a match in which the long ball usually ruled the skies.
Set-pieces, another staple, were another route to victory and Nathan Ake's header onto the bar of a Watson free-kick in the 11th minute suggested the danger of such an approach. Deeney, a prolific supplier of strikes for Ighalo, should have taken his first-half chance, too.
But just like at Old Trafford, Watford's good work in build-up play and a carefully devised strategy from Sanchez Flores, were lost to the inability to take advantage of chances and territory. Ighalo himself was a diminishing force as the evening dragged on.
If the club is to sustain the progress of this season, then owners, the Pozzo family, will surely be already hunting for a sharper cutting edge than this team currently offers.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.