Chelsea players should not be backing Leicester
Hazard and Fabregas open can of worms by saying they want Ranieri’s men to win title
Here comes that question again. Who, or what, could stop this sensational Leicester side turning English football upside down and wearing its crown in May? In a universe that loves these leaders, only Manchester United, Everton and Chelsea can still change the story.
Chelsea? Hardly, if comments by Eden Hazard and Cesc Fabregas are any guide. Both Chelsea players have said that they would like Leicester, and not Spurs, to win the championship. The complication with those interventions from two mid-table players is that Chelsea host Spurs next Monday night and face Leicester at Stamford Bridge on the season’s closing day (May 15).
This is what Hazard told the BBC after Chelsea’s win at Bournemouth: “The fans, the club, the players, we don’t want Tottenham to win the Premier League. We hope for Leicester because they deserve to be champions this season.
“We have a good game next week against Tottenham and if we can beat them it will be good.”
Six days earlier, Fabregas was a guest of Sky’s Monday Night Football and said he would prefer to see no more twists in the title race: “Hopefully not, I don’t want Spurs to win it to be honest. For what they’ve done through the season I’d love Leicester to win the Premier League.”
These comments fall short of bringing the game into disrepute but they bring a level of scrutiny Chelsea, the club, could do without. Hazard, who has been in a kind of trance all season but woke to make that provocative remark, claimed to be speaking not only for the players but the “club”, almost suggesting it was official policy to stop Spurs and help Leicester.
Hazard’s antipathy to Spurs is of the hand-me-down sort. He is simply parroting a particularly fierce London animosity. As an ex-Arsenal man and veteran of north London derbies, Fabregas has the earache to underpin his dislike of Tottenham.
In Chelsea’s games against Spurs and Leicester it may well be that the personal wishes of Guus Hiddink’s team play no part. But taken at face value, these declarations by two senior Chelsea players point to a smoothing of Leicester’s path, assuming they have not won the title already when they travel to Stamford Bridge. Claudio Ranieri, remember is a former Chelsea manager, fondly remembered in West London.
Jamie Vardy’s absence for the destruction of a Swansea side already on one of the Gower peninsula’s beautiful beaches – psychologically at any rate – proved that even Leicester’s setbacks can be reframed as positives. Classic example: out goes Vardy and in comes Leonardo Ulloa, who scores twice, before staggering off, clutching his hip. Ranieri, the Leicester manager, asked his team to make a statement about what they were capable of, even without their strike runner.
“Not bad for a one-man team,” home fans teased after Swansea had been pummelled by a performance remarkable even by Leicester’s industrious standards. Three-nil up after an hour, Ranieri’s team continued to hustle and hound like a team fighting relegation, which they were this time last year.
Sometimes you wonder: are they stuck in a loop of thinking they might go down and therefore condemned to run about forever as if the house were on fire?
Nobody called Leicester a one- man team. To do so would have been absurd. They are an 11-man team who supplied half of the PFA Player of the Year shortlist ( Vardy, N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez). This is a collective, peppered with individual match-winning talent. So the critical mass created in 34 previous league fixtures carried Leicester right through the Vardy problem to a 4-0 win.
Before this game a non-Leicester player remarked that nobody in the Premier League places any kind of external pressure on Ranieri’s side. Usually the front-runners are assailed by propaganda; especially front-runners who have never been in this position before. At the very least, the old pro observed, a rival manager might have accused them of having referees on their side, if only subconsciously.
Mauricio Pochettino, the Tottenham manager, shows no interest in mind games, and none of the other top six teams are close enough to make mischief-making worth the candle. In that context Jonathan Moss sending off Vardy for diving was a rare moment of adversity. It gave Leicester something to kick against in a season that is turning into one long guard of honour.
“They deserve to win the title because they are a very strong team,” said Swansea’s manager, Francesco Guidolin. He said this after a 4-0 defeat.
Hazard and Fabregas threw their own bouquets before Chelsea have played the Spurs and Leicester games, which is rather different.
Broadly, though, Leicester need no outside help. Vardy had scored 22 times and earned his team 21 points, with his goals. But Ulloa performed admirably in his absence. Ranieri left Marc Albrighton on the bench and told his replacement, Jeffrey Schlupp, to attack and defend with “power”. Again it went to plan.
Good fortune in this King Power stadium is mostly self-made. Leicester write their own scripts. Which is why the interventions of Fabregas and Hazard ultimately sound like vanity from their side. But they need to be professional. They cannot be allowed to cast a shadow over Leicester’s big push.
Pointing the way: Riyad Mahrez and manager Claudio Ranieri show Leicester are on the up