Captain Morgan keeps the Foxes title dream alive
Veteran skipper’s first goal of the season puts Ranieri’s men seven points clear with just six games remaining
The scenes at the end said it all. Leonardo Ulloa jumped into Danny Drinkwater’s arms and was lifted high. All the other Leicester City players clustered into three joyful huddles as they celebrated. Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel strode slowly around the pitch like a triumphant gladiator.
Then, above everyone else, there was match-winner and leader Wes Morgan pumping those blacksmith arms into the air in powerful celebration. Captain Morgan did it – what a time to score his first goal of the season – although this is far from a rum do. Instead this is simply, wonderfully intoxicating. It lifted the spirits.
Leicester have now won each of their last four Premier League games 1-0. Four goals, four wins, four clean sheets and 12 points. Nothing speaks more to their ironbelief and sense of destiny than that sequence which means they are now formidably clear of Tottenham Hotspur at the top of the table. Twelve more points, four more wins, from their final six matches and no one can catch them. No one. And they will be champions for the first time in their 132-year history.
This is simply crazy. It does not compute. A year to the day since Leicester were seven points from safety as they desperately fought against relegation they went seven points clear at the top. Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kanté have been the stars of their season, all three brilliant, deserved candidates for player of the year, but no one should discount Morgan.
The 32-year-old central defender, who did not make his top-flight debut until he was 30, whose career appeared unlikely to rise above the mediocre, who was released as a teenager by Notts County, who returned to non-League football for a couple of years before slowly rebuilding his career across the city at Nottingham Forest, without really impressing, could – should – be lifting the Premier League trophy in the coming weeks.
The giant Jamaican only arrived back from international duty on Friday, did not feel well on Saturday, and did not know whether he would play, but manager Claudio Ranieri is canny. He was not going to disrupt a winning team. The Leicester XI picks itself, they are in the finishing straight now and fatigue is being brushed aside by belief with every adrenalin-fuelled performance.
“Wes is fantastic,” Ranieri said. “He had a cold, was tired, but he is a strong man. A good example for everybody. When he speaks, everyone listens to him. But everybody is a leader in my dressing room. Everybody knows what I want.” And they do. Ranieri has developed a winning formula – “a good blend from English passion and Italian tactics,” he said – and he brilliantly, smartly rides the warm atmosphere that envelops this club.
Pre-match, there was free beer and doughnuts for everyone from chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to celebrate his birthday on Monday and the Thai billionaire received a rendition of “Happy Birthday” from the players – and Ranieri – before this encounter. That beer will have tasted flat for Southampton. Ronald Koeman was fulsome in his praise of Leicester and their aggression and endeavour and became the latest manager to express the hope that they would go on and win the league, but he also had a point to make by claiming his side should have been awarded two penalties.
“There were two key moments in the game – and I don’t like taking credit away from the Leicester performance because they had two or three big chances in the second half to score a second – but we deserved two penalties,” Koeman said. “The chance of [Sadio] Mané is handball on his arm. If not, the ball goes in. He’s not turning his body. He takes the risk. It’s a penalty and a red card. That makes it totally different again. The second is the cross of Charlie Austin [stopped by] a defender [Robert Huth] by handball.
“I spoke to the referee. I asked him to look at the clip, but it’s not allowed for them to do so. Maybe tonight, if he stays home with his family, he realises he made a big, big mistake today.”
The first incident certainly looked like it should have been a penalty and came after Mané was released by Graziano Pelle on halfway, eventually rounding Schmeichel, only for his goal-bound shot to strike Danny Simpson on the arm. Was it deliberate? Simpson seemed to move towards the ball and Ranieri argued it was just part of a natural running action. Referee Michael Oliver decided on the latter – much to Koeman’s disgust.
Soon afterwards, Schmeichel did well to claw away Jose Fonte’s fierce shot from distance before Jordy Clasie also went close with a rising drive. Just as it appeared that Southampton were in the ascendancy, Leicester scored.
It came as Kanté and new England international Drinkwater combined to free up Christian Fuchs down the left. The full-back crossed and there was Morgan to steal in and send a stooping header past Fraser Forster.
Unfathomably, Morgan was being marked by midfielder Clasie – more than six inches shorter than him and almost four stone lighter – and there was no chance he was going to be stopped.
Southampton camped in the Leicester half. Surely they would break through. But Morgan and Huth stood firm – this was meat and drink to them – and it was, eventually, Leicester creating chances with Vardy full of clever, relentless running which was summed up as he got to the byline and pulled the ball back to Simpson.
With the goal beckoning, he contrived to shoot weakly back across, allowing Forster to save. The England goalkeeper also, with great agility, tipped over an interception by Fonte and denied Vardy with his feet.
Leicester would not be denied. “What is choke?” Ranieri said, putting his hand across his throat before making a throttling noise, when asked if his team would see this through. “I’m very calm… we believe it is a magical season.”
Maybe, also, a one-off — won with 1-0s.
Breakthrough: Wes Morgan’s header flies into the net for the only goal
Possible penalty: Sadio Mane’s shot hits Danny Simpson on the arm