Another week another refereeing controversy, yet there was curiously little complaint from Leicester City over the legitimacy of the Sam Vokes goal that denied them a point at Turf Moor.
“There might have been a handball but the referee said no and the referee is always right,” said a philosophical Claudio Ranieri. That is fine if you want to be completely civilised about this sort of thing and it would not be a bad idea if some of the more strident managers and coaches took a leaf out of Ranieri’s book of mannered restraint, though we all know, and television is there to prove it, the referee is not always right. Take a game with something really important riding on it, such as a World Cup qualifying play-off between France and the Republic of Ireland, and the referee not spotting an injustice the entire world has seen several times over simply will not do.
In these particular circumstances, when aggrieved players are surrounding the referee pointing to their hand or indicating a shirt has been tugged, it seems unnecessarily Luddite for the official to shrug and wave away their protests, when a quick peek at a replay monitor would solve the problem to everyone’s satisfaction. The time surely cannot be far off when some sort of appeal or decision referral system, maybe one or two per captain per game, would force a referee to take a second look before awarding a contentious goal.
But that is for the future. In the present, last season’s champions have been dragged into the relegation dogfight. Crystal Palace play Sunderland on Saturday, which means points for at least one of the sides below them in the table, and if Sam Allardyce can engineer a win against one of his old clubs mere goal difference is all that will be keeping Leicester out of the bottom three by the time they line up against Manchester United on Sunday. It is perhaps just as well Swansea are away to Manchester City on the same day, for any more evidence of a Swans revival would leave Leicester and Middlesbrough looking most vulnerable.
The question everyone would like answered is when is Leicester’s revival going to commence? Fair enough last season was a complete one-off, probably an unrepeatable party trick on the evidence of the utter absence of chemistry or understanding between Jamie Vardy and the rest of his team at Turf Moor on Tuesday, and no one expected Leicester to be scaling similar heights again.
Yet they still have a solid squad of players – only N’Golo Kanté has been lost – and it beggars belief that having extracted the maximum from his squad last season Ranieri is now presiding over a team running on empty. Forget the title defence for a moment, everyone said last season that Leicester’s success was based on the strength of team spirit forged under Nigel Pearson. That team are still there, even if the spirit seems to have gone walkabout.
Kasper Schmeichel is still an excellent goalkeeper, Wes Morgan still a doughty defender and captain, Riyad Mahrez still a potential matchwinner and so on. Imagine the fire sale should Leicester go down.
There would be no shortage of interest from clubs in the top half of the Premier League, because that is where many of Leicester’s players have shown they can thrive.
Yet the belief is not there any longer. The memorable 4-2 victory over Manchester City turned out not to be a turning point after all, it was just a glimpse of what worked last season allowed by opponents too complacent to realise Leicester still carried a threat. Last season Leicester earned 39 of their total of 81 points on the road.
They won 11 away games and drew six. That is phenomenal – no wonder they were champions – though the contrast with this season’s haul of three points from three away draws is stark. That is relegation form, unless you can turn your home ground into a fortress, and with five home wins from 11 games Leicester have not been doing that either.
Burnley, with seven home wins on the trot in all competitions, are the relegation-tipped team making the most of home advantage this season, and Sean Dyche had a point when he claimed that though the winning goal against Leicester was lucky, his side deserved it for constantly creating chances and “knocking on the door”. In all probability that may have been part of the reason Ranieri had so little to say about Vokes’s handball. Leicester were only deprived of a point, and by that stage of the game they were lucky to still be level. Ranieri is not the type of manager to go off on a rant just to create a few diversionary headlines. He knew his side had not produced enough and accepted it. “We battled,” he said. “But maybe our final ball was not good enough.”
One half of that statement contains significantly more truth than the other. If that is what Leicester call battling, they really are going to find it difficult to climb away from trouble. While compared with the final balls of last season, when two or three pinpoint passes would shred defences and have Vardy bearing down on goal before opponents could do anything about it, Leicester are barely scratching the surface of possibility at the moment, just lumping the ball forward more in hope than expectation like all the other teams near the bottom. Leicester’s final ball is nowhere near good enough, though one could say the same about Vardy’s running off the ball, Mahrez’s dribbling and perhaps even Ranieri’s decision-making.
Popular and astute as he is, the manager is persisting with a system that is no longer working, and you wonder how much time he will be allowed to turn things round. You also wonder, ridiculous as it seems, how the resumption of Champions League fixtures will impact on a side with relegation concerns. This is uncharted territory but what Leicester need is a confidence-boosting win from their next two league games. If they can do to Manchester United what they recently did to Manchester City all will be well, at least for a while. If they cannot, they must put all their efforts into securing a first away win of the season. Their next match is at Swansea, and for both parties the outcome could be hugely significant.
The Guardian Sport