11 February 2016

Arsenal have Leicester right where they want 'em...

After positively thrashing Man City at the Etihad last weekend, Leicester lept from impossible underdogs to presumptive favorites, and why not? Not only was the quality of their win off the charts (only a late Ag├╝ero goal spoiled a clean sheet for the visitors), it stretched Leicester's undefeated stretch in the Prem to seven, a stretch during which they'd conceded just three goals. The only blemish of late, an 0-2 loss to Tottenham in the FA Cup's third round, might in fact burnish the Foxes' Prem credentials—they now have only the Prem to focus on. Five points clear of the pack and just thirteen matches to play? Yeah, I'd say they've got an inside track. They're now favorites. Perfect.

Up until last Saturday, Leicester could shield itself behind any number of excuses; it's only a matter of time, after all, before they fade to mid-table mediocrity. Any day now, they'll see Vardy or Mahrez succumb to injury, sinking the squad's hopes. One of these weeks, they'll slip up as we've all been expecting them to. Surely, Man City would give these upstarts their comeuppance, and so would begin the inevitable, inexorable exodus. Only Man City waltzed in and were blitzed. Ranieri's side have solidified that once-generous defense, learning to not just score freely but to defend stoutly. They might now stand as the best counterattacking squad in Europe. Against a pack of rivals who can barely seem to get their own acts together on a regular basis, their magic number now stands at just 35—any combination of points they win and points that Arsenal (and, yes, Tottenham...) drop that adds to 35 wins them the Prem.

Surely, they are set to win the Prem.

Perfect.

Now that they have this inside track, something in me wonders how they'll handle the pressure. They can no longer look about dewy-eyed with wonder. They have entered the realm of being taken seriously and will in turn have to take themselves more seriously. Pressure. No one will underestimate them anymore; no one will shake their heads and say, "wasn't Southampton flying high last season? Where'd they finish, eh?" Fair play to the Foxes; they've earned this position without any footnotes referring to Chelsea, Liverpool, or Man U. However, the pressure that is mounting on them will soon reach levels that few if any in the squad have ever faced. I don't think they can handle it.

I know what you're thinking: "how can a Gooner accuse any other club of bottling it? Isn't that what Arsenal does?" You'd have a point. However, we also have an ability to play our best when our backs are up against it and what it seems all is lost. We know that our own Prem season is on the line. A loss on Sunday might just knock us out of the title-race and expose us to finishing below Tottenham—and we have a history of doing quite well at averting that unpleasant possibility. We've been in some tight scrapes during recent run-ins, but Leicester hasn't faced the scrutiny, the pressure, the intensity of the Prem's final weeks. In a way, winning at the Etihad might have been the worst they could have done. The target's squarely on them, now; the klieg-lights of media attention will shine on them. 

It's up to us then to show them what it takes to fight 'til the finish. Let's see how they respond to the pressure of being the presumptive Prem champs.