Preview: Crystal Palace vs Leicester City (19/03/2016)

Written by Jack Pierce
Photo: Michael Hulf

We're eight games, at most, from what could perhaps be the greatest story in English football history becoming reality.

Mark Bright is about to announce Palace have agreed a three year partnership with Imperial Leather to provide fans with the best match day hand washing experience in the Premier Le...

No, not that one.

Leicester City need a maximum 20 points from their last eight fixtures in order to become the champions of England. In an era of unparalleled wealth and mega rich owners ploughing millions into player recruitment, a club who were expected to spend their season dodging the bottom three for most of this season have stuck two fingers up to the norm and lit up the division. It’s been great.

Week after week, it's been expected that Leicester will implode and the natural order will be restored with an Arsenal, City or United bursting through and snatching the league out of Leicester's hands. Well, week after week, those clubs fail to bridge the gap because Leicester are on the march and show no signs of letting up while the likes of Arsenal and City don't want to win the league judging by their performances at times this season.

Having worked wonders towards the end of last season, Nigel Pearson, perhaps harshly, was moved on and replaced by Claudio Ranieri, a man fresh from being relieved of his duties as Greece manager having seen his side lose to the mighty Faroe Islands.

Before you snigger, there are no easy games in international football anymore. *Except for when you play the Faroe Islands.

It was seen at best a peculiar appointment, at worst, the signing of their own death note.

Fast forward eight months and a man so often viewed as a bit of a joke during his previous time in England while in charge of Chelsea can stand proud having inspired Leicester to perhaps the most memorable campaign in the club's history.

It would amiss of me to suggest that The Foxes’ stunning season hasn’t been helped by the sensational form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Between the pair of them, they have won points and games for their side throughout the season and both are frontrunners for the end of season awards.

Vardy’s run of scoring in 11 consecutive league games, including the winner against our lot in October, was one of the stories of the Premier League’s 24 seasons. A player who scrambled together just five league goals last season started this season like a train and it was on the back of his goals and record breaking run that his side secured their place in the top four prior to Christmas. His goal scoring has dried up in comparison since the turn of the year but his role at the top of the pitch is so important for the rest of his side. His ability to stretch a defence through his sheer pace and directness allows his team an out ball all of the time and even against Arsenal last month, after his side had gone down to ten men and Arsenal really started to push for an equaliser and winner (that they would eventually get), Leicester’s opponents couldn’t go too gung-ho because of Vardy’s threat. After his season, it’s surely not possible for Roy Hodgson to ignore the ex-non league man’s claims for a place on the plane to France for the Euros. Then again, this is Hodgson making the decisions…

Riyad Mahrez, along with West Ham’s Dimitri Payet, has played football the way people who pay their hard earned cash to watch the game want it played this season. The Algerian ended last season with a flourish and looked like he was settling into the Premier League having initially struggled but this season has season Leicester’s number 26 run games with the ease that only the classiest of players can. Even in games in which he’s barely featured, Watford away a few weeks back being a prime example, Mahrez will show up for 15/20 minutes and score the goal or the provide the assist for one that decides the game. Bought for £400k from Le Havre two years ago, Mahrez must be worth at least 50 times that now and you can bet that more than one club will be looking to sign the winger given the huge impact he’s had this season.

Vardy and Mahrez have been the obvious stars but the support cast hasn’t been half bad either. From the superb N’Golo Kante, perhaps my favourite non-Palace player of the season, and Danny Drinkwater in the middle of the park to the unsung Shinji Okazaki; the mighty Robert Huth and Wes Morgan at the back to the very reliable Kasper Schmeichel between the sticks, Claudio Ranieri has been able to call upon some very strong characters and performers who haven’t let him down.

The Italian’s ability to name pretty much the same team throughout the whole campaign has helped and Leicester, maybe Mahrez aside, often appear just one unit moving in wonderful synchronicity rather than 11 individuals.

If they do go on to win the league, it’ll be a victory for the unlikely, unsung hero and that’s probably why the majority of non-Leicester fans wants them to win the league.

Saturday aside, I wish them luck for the rest of this season.

If Leicester win the league, wouldn’t it be great if a rather unfashionable, unfancied club also went on to win the FA Cup too?

And I don’t mean bloody Watford!

Follow Jack on Twitter.