Foxes need Vardy-Mahrez magic, says Neil Humphreys
Vardy and Mahrez must rediscover their magic for Foxes' fairy tale to last
LEICESTER CITY v STOKE CITY
(Tonight, 10.55pm, Singtel TV Ch 103 & StarHub TV Ch 228)
From part-time footballer to full England international, the striker's story was about a pumpkin turning into a penalty-box prince.
He inspired his teammates. He elevated his lowly club's ambitions.
He realised the schoolboy dreams of every man puffing around an amateur pitch.
And today, Rickie Lambert, 33, is a back-up striker for West Brom.
Just 18 months ago, he dashed through the Sao Paulo drizzle as England slumped to a World Cup defeat by Uruguay.
Now he's the subject of ridicule from belligerent Baggies supporters, mocking his alleged failings on social media.
For forgotten footballers eking out a living in the lower leagues, Lambert was a fairy tale to follow. For Jamie Vardy, he is a cautionary tale.
Although the Leicester City forward is both younger and faster than Lambert was in his heyday, the similarities are uncanny.
Both men experienced a late, meteoric rise through the divisions that culminated in an explosive Premier League campaign and an international call-up.
Lambert joined his boyhood club Liverpool and the descent proved to be as swift as the star's rise. The amiable, honest pro was never the same striker again.
Vardy, like his teammates, finds himself at a mid-season crossroads, perhaps inevitable after that unexpected rise to the summit.
The sprint to 15 goals has come to a juddering halt. Vardy hasn't scored in his last seven games and his inconsistency is proving contagious.
Riyad Mahrez, whose remarkable stats include 13 goals and seven assists from 20 league starts, has now gone five straight without finding the net and missed penalties in two of the last three matches.
Both matches ended in draws. Mahrez has been relieved of penalty-taking duties.
But the unfortunate misses, along with Vardy's lean spell, hint at deeper frustrations.
Relative unknowns at the start of the season, they are now marked men.
After a poor performance against Aston Villa, manager Claudio Ranieri was surprisingly forthright in his criticisms of Mahrez.
The Algerian had to learn to deal with the omnipresent shadows. Good players attract minders. Great players lose them.
In recent matches, neither Mahrez nor Vardy has managed the latter.
Stoke manager Mark Hughes inadvertently attributed Leicester's dip in form to their main men up front.
Before the two sides meet tonight, Hughes acknowledged how opponents have adapted to Leicester's approach, pulling back defences to reduce the risk of being exposed by Mahrez's vision and Vardy's blistering pace.
A recent player performance index recognised Vardy as the league's fastest player, alongside Manchester United's Anthony Martial, but the 29-year-old is finding less space against retreating back fours.
Vardy was always at home on the shoulder of the last defender. But he's struggled to find one since Christmas.
Not that the recent goal slump should be construed as a criticism of this season's Cinderella and his giddy underdogs. Leicester have already exceeded every expectation, but there is a nagging suspicion that the Tinkerman won't be able to help himself, that the dream will end with unseemly haste.
Ranieri rested eight first-teamers against Tottenham in midweek and essentially handed Spurs a bye into the fourth round of the FA Cup.
Leicester's hurried, pressing game found a cutting edge only when Shinji Okazaki and Mahrez were introduced, but it was too late by then.
Ranieri's calculated risk was arguably justified, considering the smallish squad, but the defeat left Leicester with only one win in their last seven games; the kind of form associated with sides lost in the mid-table wilderness.
And the Foxes' upcoming fixtures are particularly daunting, with Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal lined up next month.
Leicester fans, and hopeless romantics everywhere, must be hoping that Ranieri's new-found laissez-faire approach doesn't give way to tinkering.
At their best, the Foxes' retro 4-4-2 formation thrives on exhilarating counter-attacking, with the midfield content to concede possession in non-threatening areas.
But the strategy works with only the right components at the pointy end. As Tottenham demonstrated, if Vardy and Mahrez are isolated or do not play, Leicester lack bite. They're a set of gums in search of teeth.
So Ranieri's decision to let Andrej Kramaric leave on loan to Hoffenheim was a strange one. The Croatian striker had slipped down the pecking order, but Leicester are so short of options beyond Okazaki and Vardy that the move seems an unnecessary gamble.
Ranieri has promised reinforcements and the Leicester faithful must hope he finds suitable support for Vardy quickly.
A defeat by Stoke tonight could well precipitate a decline and that would be such a shame for a league short on feel-good stories.
Just ask Lambert. When it comes to EPL underdogs, happy endings are so hard to find.
- Norwich v Liverpool
- Man United v Southampton
- Watford v Newcastle
- Crystal Palace v Tottenham
- Sunderland v Bournemouth
- West Brom v Aston Villa
- West Ham v Man City
- Everton v Swansea
- Arsenal v Chelsea