The fairytale goes on. Leicester City’s comprehensive 3-1 victory over Manchester City last Saturday saw them move five points clear at the top of the Premier League table, with this weekend’s meeting with Arsenal giving them a chance to extend that margin further and deliver a decisive blow to the Gunners’ own title ambitions (12pm Sunday, Sky Sports 1).
Claudio Ranieri’s men continue to surprise, with the aforementioned defeat of City notable for how comfortable it was. Leicester dominated from the very first whistle and never really looked vulnerable until Sergio Aguero pulled one back for Manuel Pellegrini’s charges late on. Riyad Mahrez (pictured) has recaptured his best form after going through a sticky patch over the festive and New Year period, while Jamie Vardy’s pace remains a major threat and N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater continue to impress in the centre of midfield.
Leicester have also undergone a marked improvement at the back in the last couple of months. In the first 17 matches of the campaign, their backline was breached on 24 occasions. In the eight encounters since then, the East Midlanders have conceded only three goals – despite facing City twice, Liverpool twice and Tottenham Hotspur once – and recorded five clean sheets. Their new-found defensive solidity could be vital in the run-in as opponents look to shut Leicester out at the other end and deny them the space on the break that they crave.
Arsenal also came out on top last weekend, when they ran out 2-0 winners against Bournemouth at the Vitality Stadium. It was a much-needed victory for Arsene Wenger’s outfit, who had collected just three points from the last 12 on offer. The club’s fans will now be hoping that Arsenal have emerged from that sticky patch and will be far stronger between now and the end of the season, although a slip-up against Leicester would see them fall eight points adrift of the summit, a margin that would be difficult to overcome.
On the plus side, Arsenal have also looked more resolute at the back in recent weeks. Diego Costa’s winner for Chelsea last month was the only time they have conceded in the Premier League since a 3-3 draw with Liverpool four games ago, with Petr Cech again showing his worth between the sticks. If the Gunners can keep things tight defensively for the remainder of the campaign, their attacking firepower means they will stand an excellent chance of finishing on top of the pile.
Although a bout of injuries or suspensions could derail Leicester’s bid for the championship – the Foxes simply do not have the strength in depth of their rivals at the top – Ranieri has no such concerns ahead of his side’s trip to the Emirates Stadium. Jeff Schlupp remains sidelined with a hamstring problem and Matty James has yet to recover from a knee ligament injury, but the Italian otherwise has a fully fit squad to choose from this weekend.
Arsenal, meanwhile, will be unable to call upon the services of midfield trio Santi Cazorla, Tomas Rosicky and Jack Wilshere. Danny Welbeck could make his long-awaited return, however, while Francis Coquelin is expected to be included in the north Londoners’ starting XI after being eased back by Wenger in the last few weeks.
Conventional wisdom suggests that Leicester’s run has to come to an end soon, but this is actually the perfect type of game for a team who like to cede possession, sit deep in their own half and spring forward quickly on the counter. The Emirates crowd is liable to get frustrated when things to do not go their way, with Leicester able to use that to their advantage by soaking up the pressure before stinging the hosts at the other end. Arsenal have enough quality to take all three points, but the relatively long odds means Leicester are worth backing to triumph on Sunday afternoon.