LEICESTER: Leicester striker Jamie Vardy was bemused and then furious, jabbing his right finger toward the referee who had just brandished the red card. Vardy had not only been denied a penalty but Leicester’s top scorer received a second booking after being adjudged to have dived. With more than 30 minutes still to play, the leaders had to cope with 10 men while protecting a 1-0 lead that had been secured in the first half by Vardy’s 22nd goal of the season.
West Ham did seize a 2-1 lead at the King Power stadium but Leicester, a team that was fighting relegation this time last season and was expecting to struggle again, refused to surrender. In the fourth minute of stoppage time, still pursuing a leveler, fortune favored Leicester again. This time referee Jon Moss did award the hosts a penalty when Jeffrey Schlupp was shoved off the ball by Andy Caroll. Substitute striker Leonardo Ulloa sent West Ham goalkeeper Adrian the wrong way to salvage a 2-2 draw. “I feel like he has tried to equal it out,” Carroll said of the referee’s third and final penalty call. The five-game winning streak was over but for now Leicester extended its lead to
eight points ahead of second-place Tottenham’s match at Stoke today.
“I’m always asking my players to give their heart and soul until the end,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said. “We are never worried. We were worried at the beginning of the season to achieve 40 points (to avoid relegation) but now we enjoy. We enjoy and never I speak with my players about the gap … everything is in our hands.” Leicester only needs to collect eight points from its last four matches to clinch the first league title in the 132-year history of this central England team. Next Sunday against Swansea, though, Leicester will have to cope without Vardy as the striker serves a suspension. Perhaps losing Kasper Schmeichel would have been more damaging. The goalkeeper had kept five consecutive clean sheets before Sunday and he made a decisive save in the first minute against West Ham, pushing Cheikhou Kouyate’s header onto the post and saving Michail Antonio’s header before Vardy’s opener
Then Schmeichel launched the trademark Leicester counterattack that produced the 18thminute opener. Schmeichel threw the ball to Riyad Mahrez, who charged down the right flank before releasing N’Golo Kante. West Ham couldn’t contain the speedy move and Kante fed Vardy, who struck across the face of goal into Adrian’s net. But Vardy was booked 10 minutes later for a late sliding challenge on Kouyate. It would prove costly. Just before he was sent off, though, Vardy had come close to scoring again but he couldn’t make a connection with Shinji Okazaki’s cross.
Then as Vardy was surging through on goal he was held back by Angelo Ogbonna, tangled with the West Ham defender and tumbled to the ground. Moss decided that Vardy had dived and brandished that second yellow card. “He never dived … always he goes very fast and at this speed if you touch a little (the player goes down),” Ranieri said. Moss did point to the penalty spot in the 84th when he punished Leicester captain Wes Morgan for shoving Winston Reid over and Carroll converted from the spot. It was the first goal Kasper Schmeichel had conceded in 574 minutes and he was beaten again two minutes later.
Michail Antonio’s cross from the right flank was cleared by Leicester defender Danny Simpson to Aaron Creswell, who unleashed a shot into the top corner of the net. The drama wasn’t over, with Ulloa’s equalizer in the fifth minute of stoppage time summing up Leicester’s calmness under pressure in this unprecedented pursuit of Premier League glory. For the first time since Blackburn won the title in 1995, the Premier League trophy could yet be going to a team outside Manchester or London. “We showed again our team spirit and togetherness,” Leicester’s Simpson said. “We know we always fight to the death and that’s what we did.” — AP