Leicester City escape would eclipse feat of 2005 for panto villain Pearson

Nigel Pearson was full of praise for this weekend's opposite number, Garry Monk.

Nigel Pearson was full of praise for Swansea boss Garry Monk

They romped to the Championship title last year with 102 points, the joint-second highest number in the second tier of English football, but Leicester City have found their long-awaited return to the Premier League a far greater challenge.

Having ended their 10-year exile in such champagne fashion, Nigel Pearson’s side began the season brightly, taking a point off Everton and Arsenal, with wins over Stoke City at the Britannia and, famously, Manchester United at the King Power Stadium.

But a run of five defeats in six games left them bottom in November, which was compounded by six straight losses in the lead-up to Christmas. Such a stark turn in fortunes forced Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to part with a club-record transfer fee for the second time in six months, as Andrej Kramaric replaced Leandro Ulloa as the most expensive purchase in the Foxes’ 131-year history.

But at a combined £16 million, the pair would have expected a far more productive return than the eight goals scored between them. Indeed, that outlay counts for the vast majority of investment Pearson has made on last season’s runaway Championship winners, and it is the strike-force from that title-winning campaign that the former Hull City boss looks set to bestow his faith in with just seven games remaining.

Jamie Vardy has been forced to fight for his place this season at the King Power Stadium

Jamie Vardy has been forced to fight for his place this season

Jamie Vardy was, by all accounts, unplayable in Leicester’s 5-3 win over United at a bouncing King Power back in September – arguably the most entertaining match of this average Premier League season – but the manner in which he celebrated his last-minute winner over West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns last weekend showed in many ways where things have gone wrong ever since.

As the Foxes’ players, to a man, swooped towards the pocket of travelling supporters to celebrate what could prove a pivotal goal in their side’s quest for survival, Vardy pointed at himself ferociously, shouting: ‘I’m the man!’ In the coming weeks, Leicester will need to show the collective spirit and calmness to deliver in a very manageable run of games.

Pearson said after the last-gasp 3-2 victory, ‘We can’t spend too much time patting ourselves on the back.’ Never one to shirk the limelight himself, the 51-year-old may have looked kindly on his match winner’s moment of self-indulgence, and given Vardy’s influence in recent weeks – contributing to four goals in his last three PL games (2 goals, 2 assists) – he would be wrong to curb any of the gathering enthusiasm in the explosive forward.

Alongside him is likely to be David Nugent, who may well see this as his last chance of keeping the Premier League flame flickering with him turning 30 at the start of next month. His 20 goals and 14 assists last season were two major reasons why the Foxes came up, and reverting to a side that has accumulated the most winning mentality in their careers would be a smart move.

Premier League survival would be every bit as sweet for Esteban Cambiasso as Champions League success

Premier League survival would be every bit as sweet for Esteban Cambiasso as Champions League success

That would of course include Champions League winner Esteban Cambiasso at the heart of the midfield engine, and Kasper Schmeichel in goal, whose return from a broken toe has coincided with Leicester’s late resurgence. The Dane’s 17 clean sheets earned him a place in the PFA Championship team of the year 2014, and having him back between the sticks will have increased confidence immeasurably in the defence.

Leicester looked down and out barely a fortnight ago, seven points adrift from safety, but two wins courtesy of two late goals have given them the momentum to become the first ever side to escape from 22 points after 30 games.

As a no-nonsense Yorkshire man, Pearson would probably have a snarling, ready-made rebuke to any member of the press who would proclaim themselves surprised if Leicester conspired to be relegated from this position; by his own admission, they have their destiny in their own hands, but they also have to now deliver when the pressure is back on.

Pearson spoke cautiously in this week’s press conference, refusing to get carried along with many betting companies who tip his side to escape, despite still being at the foot of the table. If results go Leicester’s way this weekend, however, they could find themselves out of the bottom three.

The manner in which the wheels came off during a run of fixtures from autumn into winter is incentive enough not to get fooled by the fact that five of the Foxes last seven games are at home.

The first of those comes against a Swansea side who are aiming for their best ever top-flight finish. Garry Monk arrives in the East Midlands with his squad depleted by the suspension of Neil Taylor and injury to Kyle Naughton in defence, and with Nelson Oliveira battling to join Marvin Emnes as the only fit attacking option, following the injury to Bafetimbi Gomis last week.

Kasper Schmeichel has returned to replace Mark Schwarzer in goal the last two wins

Kasper Schmeichel has returned to replace Mark Schwarzer in goal

If you think the South Wales side represent the perfect opposition for Leicester to make it three wins on the bounce, don’t be fooled. While Swansea have failed to record a win away to the Foxes since 1950, in the days of Filbert Street, the rapidly declining form of Tottenham Hotspur and the distinct possibility of seventh place becoming a Europa League berth (if both Liverpool and Arsenal reach the FA Cup final) make this far from a dead rubber for the visitors.

But with Sunderland, Burnley and QPR still to play, there is a feeling that Leicester, with a fully fit squad to choose from, could break once and for all from the hard-luck tale that has preceded them this season, converting good performances into invaluable points.

These are £60 million matches ahead for all the sides embroiled at the bottom, but Leicester will feel that while other clubs didn’t wait for their turning point on the pitch, opting for a change of management, they are ready to reap the rewards of playing the longer game.

The 4-3 defeat away to Spurs last month, courtesy of a contentious penalty among other slightly fortuitous Harry Kane goals, may well have proved their turning point – triggering anger that this would be the last in a lengthy list of games reminiscent of a plucky underdog being constantly pipped by those of higher rank in a bastardized FA Cup.

Leicester have never been pummelled this season, and if the slender defeat at White Hart Lane, which came after they had failed to defeat 10-man Hull at home, was not a tipping point, then perhaps Cheikhou Kouyaté’s equaliser after Nugent had failed to double Leicester’s lead from the penalty spot two weeks ago was. It’s really has been that type of campaign.

With the top of the table more or less confirmed, fans and pundits alike have began taking more notice of the relegation scrap, pointing at the horrific run-ins that await Hull City, in particular, and West Brom, whose season may end just in the knick of time. But as Sunderland proved last season, and Wigan before them would testify, the pedigree of opponent often becomes irrelevant when winning becomes the only option.

A recent survey revealed Chelsea as the most ill-disciplined club this season, but in the same way they look likely to be crowned unpopular winners of this year’s chief domestic honour, Pearson could yet cap being cast as its pantomime villain by prospering in the final furlong.

Pearson was the assistant manager to Bryan Robson at West Brom in 2005, when the Baggies stayed up despite being bottom at Christmas. After reports that he had lost his job in February following a touchline altercation with James McArthur, not forgetting his spat with a fan and a member of the local press, Pearson would be afforded a wry smile if he pulls off an escape act every bit as impressive at that achieved at the Hawthorns.

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Old Trafford derby the perfect setting for Manchester City to regain their swagger

Vincent Kompany needs to lead Manchester City out of its current malaise

Vincent Kompany needs to lead Manchester City out of its current malaise.

The Blue Moon rendition in the dying embers of defeat at Selhurst Park, the final nail in the coffin of Manchester City’s title defence, was one last act of defiance. These were not sombre syllables, but words fuelled with anger, just as the corner of Liverpool supporters had sung You’ll Never Walk Alone on that barmy title-defining night at the same venue a year ago.

Man City are a club not so much in crisis as at a cross-roads. The future, filled with the joys of Financial Fair Play and hyper-inflated home-grown talents, may squeeze them hard. Never has there been such pressure on the Etihad Campus to deliver fruits from the £200m investment.

City have failed to win back-to-back Premier League games since late February, and have lost a staggering seven of their last 13 matches in all competitions. It is virtually unheard of from a side containing such riches, but it is the reality they must shake off soon if they are to salvage anything from this car-crash of a campaign.

Nine points off champions-elect Chelsea, who have a game in hand, Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville was moved to describe City as a side who ‘get to the top of the hill, only to jump off’, without the necessary mentality to defend their crown.

City’s defence of their title has been every bit as pathetic as that of Roberto Mancini’s side in 2013, when they finished 11 points off United, and to a lesser extent that of their cross-city rivals 12 months later.

You can forgive the loyal following who trudged away from the 2-1 defeat to Crystal Palace on Monday night for approaching the seminal derby this weekend with severe trepidation. City have kept three clean sheets in their last 18 games, and face Louis van Gaal’s side at a time when they have found a winning formula. Confidence has caught on, the philosophy has finally clicked into place.

But Old Trafford is the perfect setting for City to regain their swagger. They have won all four Manchester derbies since the start of 2013, winning on three straight trips to Old Trafford, and now more than ever do they need to add to that recent dominance.

What Manuel Pellegrini needs is for Sunday’s showdown to spark a mini-revival that could save the Chilean from the chop come the summer. It is a scenario not too dissimilar to the one that David Moyes was faced with the last time these two sides met at Old Trafford a little over a year ago.

That night, the Red Devils were swept aside by a City that bristled with the confidence of a side that believed Chelsea could, and would, be caught. For many Moyes apologists, it was a defining moment in the shift from believing in the Scot’s long-term strategy to one of growing disillusion, reflected in the 12 points which separated the reigning Premier League holders and the Champions League places.

The spotlight has focused just as acutely on van Gaal’s tenure at times this season, but the plight of United’s noisy neighbours has made their resurgence under the Dutchman since defeat in the reverse fixture in November all the more impressive.

The narrow 1-0 defeat at the Etihad – which moved City seven points clear of United – sparked a six-game winning streak prior to Christmas, which has continued into the New Year, as the 20-time champions of England embarked on a run which has seen them lose only twice in 21 league fixtures, crucially winning 15 of them, to move a point and a place above the soon-to-be deposed champions.

Of course, all this shows is that a derby defeat can prove just as stirring as euphoric victory; indeed, Liverpool’s chastening afternoon at Old Trafford in December both disguised and delivered the perfect formula with which they dragged themselves to within top four contention.

But the timing of this renewal, with only seven league games remaining, and the close parallels between Moyes’ meek defence of Sir Alex Ferguson’s last title and that of Pellegrini this, makes victory for City imperative in order to retain elite status.

Defeat to United could spell the end of Manuel Pellegrini's reign as City manager.

Defeat could spell the end of Manuel Pellegrini’s reign as Man City manager.

Pellegrini is a proud man, who will be hurting from the column inches dedicated this week to denting his rather reserved, emotionless personality. At regular intervals, there has been conjecture of player unrest, with Samir Nasri’s reported petulance at the fore.

With every defeat, the statistic of the side’s ever-ageing make-up is updated, with the average age of this week’s starting 11 clocked at 28 years and 310 days, again the oldest in the league. Such a fact merely points to a less sprightly future, and of course leads to inevitable speculation of transfer targets.

The Daily Mail were happy to wade in, providing the news that both Jack Wilshere and Jordan Henderson, of Arsenal and Liverpool respectively, were on City’s summer shopping list; the obvious stumbling blocks of prizing two of the most talented young Englishmen from rival clubs merely an inconvenience.

But having a side that is on average over 28 years old belies the degree of big-game experience within it, and City will need to call upon this on Sunday, as they have done at times this season. Indeed, only Chelsea boast a better points return against sides currently occupying the top eight, averaging 1.8 points per game.

Ironically, given the contrasting form of the two sides, it is United who go into the game under more pressure. The title has been conceded by City, extinguished at Selhurst in the same way it was for Liverpool last May, but derby day offers a chance of reprieve that would simultaneously provide the added satisfaction of denting their rivals’ hopes of rejoining the Premier League’s top table.

What greater incentive is needed for the battered prides of Vincent Kompany, Yaya Toure and the desperately out-of-sorts Sergio Aguero? The latter has gone 511 minutes without a Premier League goal, and it is of little surprise that his demise has coincided with that of the team as a whole.

The Argentinian has failed to rediscover his confidence since his penalty miss in the Champions League against Barcelona, but a heady dose of derby intensity may prove the perfect antidote to the morale-sapping three consecutive away league defeats.

Sunday will be a tense affair – made all the more intriguing by the appointment of Mark Clattenburg, who has sent off three players from these two clubs this season, including Kompany while on international duty with Belgium last month.

For United, it is the perfect opportunity to show the progress made since the 3-0 reverse here 13 months ago. For City, it is a chance to remind their closest rivals that a return to the status quo of the Ferguson years is not quite as looming as it seems.

Make no mistake, Pellegrini is not as bullet-proof in his job as he thinks; but the players who have put him in a position of vulnerability have the perfect stage on which to prove they deserve respect as part of the club’s project for progress in the months of overhaul ahead.

The curtailed working week will have still felt an eternity for Mancunians of City descent, baited by their rivals for the current league standings, but by luck of the fixture computer they have the chance of an instant riposte, in a tête-à-tête confrontation to reassert their authority, and to rediscover their misplaced mojo.

Hull need a miracle of Poyet proportions to stay up

Be prepared: the weather warning for Hull's survival bid is most definitely amber (Picture: Getty)

Be prepared: the weather warning for Hull’s survival bid is most definitely amber (Picture: Getty)

Chelsea moved a step closer to regaining the Premier League title and the Champions League places took shape, but the Easter weekend did little to unwrap the identity of the three sides heading for the Championship.

QPR and Leicester’s victories over the Bank Holiday weekend could prove turning points in the race for survival, and after Sunderland and Burnley both responded on Sunday by picking up a win and a draw respectively, Hull have emerged as the side on the slide at just the wrong time.

The Humberside club reapplied to have their name changed to Hull Tigers last week, but Steve Bruce’s men – without a win in five – already look an endangered species in the Premier League.

Their most recent defeat in an injury-interrupted season came in South Wales, as Garry Monk’s Swansea enjoyed a comfortable afternoon in the spring sunshine at the Liberty Stadium.

The 3-1 score line may’ve flattered the home side – the visitors had shown good character in reducing the deficit after being reduced to 10 men – but with four of the top six to play in the remaining seven matches, there is little time remaining to draw positives from any more hard-luck stories.

Hull quite simply need points. The absence of midfielder Mohamed Diame, who scored four goals in his first eight appearances for the club since moving from West Ham last summer, has proved a huge loss for the Tigers, with the Senegalese international playing his first minutes at the Liberty since aggravating a knee injury in December.

His return to fitness may yet act as the catalyst to steer relegation fears away from the KC Stadium, which have mounted pretty much ever since Bruce signed his new contract mid-way through March.

Back-to-back victories over Aston Villa and QPR at home in February had probably coincided with the former Sunderland manager’s decision to use the international break as an opportune moment to recharge his batteries with a spot of rest and relaxation in Barbados.

looking over his shoulder: Steve Bruce faces an anxious month and a half (Picture: Getty)

Looking over his shoulder: Steve Bruce faces an anxious month and a half (Picture: Getty)

But the unflattering pictures of his waistline whilst plunging into a pool now appear the least of his concerns, as his side now sits two points above the relegation zone, with any one of the three sides currently occupying it looking capable of usurping their position of safety.

Seven points separate the bottom six. That no side has been cut adrift, and both Rangers and Leicester will now believe they can convert performances into points, makes Hull’s position far more precarious than the media coverage it has received in this, the most open of relegation dogfights in recent memory.

The magic 40-point mark has been consigned to the history books, as the average number needed has steadily decreased.

The magic 36-point mark: It's been 11 seasons since 40 points were needed to stay up (Picture: Premier League)

The magic 36-point mark: It’s been 11 seasons since 40 points were needed to stay up (Picture: Premier League)

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Sunderland looked doomed last season at a later date than the first week of April. Rooted to the bottom of the table on 23 points after defeat to Everton, Gus Poyet’s side were staring down the barrel of despair, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Manchester United all to face on their travels.

But four wins and an improbable draw away to eventual champions City meant defeat at home to Swansea on the final day was immaterial.

It’s the kind of run Hull will need now to retain their top flight status, starting with the difficult trip to Southampton on Saturday. The St. Mary’s clash precedes the visit of Liverpool, who will be eager to inject momentum back into their season and avenge last season’s 3-1 defeat in the North-east.

It doesn’t get any easier for the Tigers, as a trip to face Alan Pardew’s resurgent Crystal Palace is followed by a home game with Arsenal.

With Tottenham and Manchester United to face in the last two league fixtures, the May 9 showdown at home to Burnley is already looking like an eliminator for both sides.

By that point, Bruce will hope to have top scorer Nikica Jelavic back from injury, but in the meantime he needs Dame N’Doye to rediscover his potency in front of goal alongside club record signing Abel Hernandez.

Hull finished 16th last season, but their Premier League status had been secured well in advance of the final day, a week before an FA Cup final against Arsenal, the biggest day in the club’s history.

The Tigers’ previous stay in the top flight only lasted two seasons, but for their latest stint to extend beyond the same time period, a miracle of Poyet-sized proportions may well be needed.