LONDON: This time a year ago Leicester City were bottom of the Premier League. Now the league title remains within reach but only after a topsy-turvy 2:2 home draw against West Ham which leaves Tottenham – away to Stoke tonight – still with faint hope of a football miracle writes KEIR RADNEDGE.
Jamie Vardy played a mixed-up role, scoring Leicester’s first goal but then being sent off and thus offering West Ham a way back into a game they almost won.
Manager Claudio Ranieri said: “It was a difficult, tough match.” He refuse to offer an opinion about Vardy’s expulsion but was full of praise for the manner in which the Foxes fought back in the last minutes.
“It was fantastic,” said Ranieri. “We play every match with our blood, heart and soul so I say ‘thankyou’ to my players and the fans. It was very important psychologically to get back in last minute. Very important.”
Leicester had an early scare when a header from Cheikhou Kouyate hit both posts but then they took over. First Robert Huth headed narrowly wide from a right-wing corner then Vardy put them ahead after an end-to-end move. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel began it with a quick clearance throw before Ngolo Kante barrelled through the heart of the West Ham defence and set up Vardy for his 22nd goal of the season.
Vardy’s match took a wrong turning however shortly after half-time when he was sent off. The striker, already shown a yellow card in the first half, was booked again by referee Jon Moss for diving under a challenge from West Ham defender Angelo Ogbonna. He was the first Leicester player to score and be sent off in the same match since 1994.
Leicester fans were furious. Gary Lineker tweeted: “Diabolical decision. Penalty all day long.” But most neutral analysts agreed that Moss had been correct in making a brave, difficult decision.
Minutes later West Ham were ahead. Right back Michail Antonio crossed to the far corner of the penalty box where Hammers’ other fullback, Aaron Cresswell, thundered a left-foot drive up beyond Schmeichel’s flailing left hand.
Leicester responded with Huth now an extra centre-forward. Carrol tripped Jeffrey Schlupp and Leonardo Ulloa, in the absence of Vardy and substituted Riyard Mahrez, converted the last-minute penalty.
“I’m so happy for the team because we didn’t deserve to lose,” said Ulloa.
Now the focus is back on Tottenham tonight. Win at Stoke and they will be back within five points. Christian Eriksen, Jan Vertonghen and Toby Alderweireld still believe in the dream, remembering the 2010-11 season when their Ajax side overtook FC Twente to win the Dutch title on the final day of the season.
Ajax had trailed Twente by 12 points at one stage but beat them 3-1 in the final match to snatch the title by two points. Eriksen said: “That season we were trailing for a real long time. I think we were second until the last day of the season. So we know what can happen.”
Liverpool’s heroes from Thursday’s dramatic Europa League defeat of Borussia Dortmund – with the exception of Roberto Firmino – were given the day off as the Reds won 2-1 at Bournemouth.
Liverpool still have a slim hope of finishing in the top four but winning the Europa League is their likeliest route to Champions League qualification and Klopp’s selection suggested he agrees.
One notable absentee, among the 10, was Emre Can. The midfielder, one of the most influential players in their revival, is out for between four and six weeks after injuring ankle ligaments against Dortmund. He, like captain and fellow midfielder Jordan Henderson, risks missing the rest of the season including Klopp’s first Merseyside derby aganst Everton on Wednesday.
Firmino capitalised on his continued presence by by shooting Liverpool ahead after goalkeeper Artur Borac could only parry a backheel from Daniel Sturridge. Minutes later Sturridge struck a second, his sixth goal in seven games in his bid to impress Roy Hodgson that he should be in England’s squad for Euro 2016.
Sturridge also twice hit the posts before Joshua King scored Bournemouth’s late consolation goal.
Liverpool have now won away at 50 different grounds in the Premier League, more than any other side and Firmino has been involved in 12 goals in his past 11 Premier games (eight goals, four assists).
Klopp said: “They’ve never played together. They could have defended better, played a bit more football in the first half – but it was really, really good. Danny Ward was brilliant [in goal]. Let the self-confidence grow of goalkeepers, they’re normal human beings.”
Arsenal slipped back frustratingly to fourth place after a complacent second-half display allowed Crystal Palace to snatch a 1:1 derby draw. Mesut Ozil did his best, creating openings in both halves and going close himself with a free kick.
Alexis Sanchez’s goal in first-half stoppage time was cancelled out in the 82nd. Yannick Bolasie surprised Petr Cech on his near post. By this time Palace, worried about relegation, had four centre-forwards on the pitch in pursuit of an important point.