How do you replace one of the players of the season? With ease, it transpires. Leicester City had no Jamie Vardy and no problems. They beat Swansea City so emphatically that their fans mockingly chorused “4-0 to the one-man team”.
Vardy propelled Leicester into a position where the most implausible title in the history of English football became probable. Others ensured he was not missed.
Leicester are a team with a can-do mentality and players who are willing to assume responsibility. That is why they occupy such a lofty position. It is why they are equipped to negotiate any obstacles on their path to glory. Not that there are too many left. Leicester have won six of their last seven games. Unless they drop points in two of the last three, they are guaranteed to be champions.
They have benefited from great continuity, but this was a sign that their strengths stretch beyond what had been 11 constants.
It was the first time in 418 days they entered a league game without Vardy. The striker’s suspension could have created a void. Instead it offered an opportunity. A trio obliged. Replacing Vardy, the potent pest, was a three-man job. Two of them scored. The other created the third goal.
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Jeffrey Schlupp was the resident speedster, which had been one of Vardy’s mantles. Leonardo Ulloa took over from him in attack. Riyad Mahrez slotted seamlessly into the role of talisman. His mini-drought was ended within 10 minutes. A strangely lax pass from Ashley Williams struck the Algerian. Mahrez showed rather greater composure and precision, delaying before placing his effort past Lukasz Fabianski. It was the winger’s first goal at home in 2016. Even that is telling, however: his crucial contributions have tended to come on the road. That indicates a player with mettle.
And Leicester have figures of stature, even if one is disguised by his image as an amiable eccentric. Nevertheless, Claudio Ranieri’s impeccable decision-making has been a feature of the season. Vardy’s ban meant the non-tinkering Tinkerman was forced into a change and he opted to make a second, demoting Marc Albrighton for Schlupp.
Each choice was justified. Even the man he dropped still scored. The stand-in stood especially tall. Ulloa lacks Vardy’s pace but adds an aerial threat, which brought the second goal.
Their third, however, was Ranieri’s real triumph. The blisteringly quick Schlupp surged clear and, at the second time of asking, picked out Ulloa for a tap-in. A pioneer of squad rotation in English football saw two of his squad players prosper from the start and his three replacements combine for the fourth goal. Albrighton responded to his omission by sweeping it in during his cameo.
They are rare for him, regularities for Ulloa. When selecting a team of the season, there is a case for naming the Argentine as a substitute. He has been Ranieri’s favourite replacement, the 12th man in a team where the first 11 has been set in stone. He has been energetic, effective and unselfish.
An 89th-minute winner against Norwich and a 95th-minute equaliser against West Ham have illustrated his capacity to deliver at pivotal moments. He had gone almost four months without beginning a league match. This was proof he can start games as well as finish games, even if he made an early departure for once, hobbling off, holding his back. He may be required again at Old Trafford on Sunday as Vardy should discover on Monday if the suspension he incurred for his sending off against West Ham will be extended for his comments to referee Jonathan Moss.
He spent Sunday watching on from an executive box instead. He rarely smiles but it would be a surprise if, privately, he did not harbour feelings of relief. The theory had been mooted that Vardy’s red card would cost Leicester the title.
With Ulloa in such fine form and his colleagues showing a collective determination to compensate for his absence, it won’t.
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