No Vardy, no problem for Leicester?
With Vardy out, it's time for Leicester to prove they are not a one-man team
LEICESTER CITY v SWANSEA CITY
(Tonight, 11.15pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
The problem with a fairy tale is that it's usually a work of fiction.
In the case of Leicester City, the mythology overtook reality so long ago that it's hard not to picture the Foxes floating into the King Power Stadium on white, fluffy clouds.
Tomorrow, they face Swansea City. But the Swans face animated characters from a Disney movie, singing and dancing their way to a euphoric title-winning finale.
Leicester's story is certainly stranger than fiction, so much so that it has been largely fictionalised.
According to the popular narrative, Leicester are a band of brothers, all for one and one for all, no longer men but musketeers all raising their swords aloft in celebration.
It's a compelling tale, but not an accurate one.
Jamie Vardy has scored 22 of Leicester's 59 goals, while Riyad Mahrez has 16 goals and 11 assists.
They are Leicester's Bert and Ernie, joined at the hip and always on message. The show just wouldn't be the same without them.
Tomorrow, the Foxes will find out.
Vardy is suspended. Mahrez must fly solo against the Swans.
Leicester are not a two-man team by any stretch of the imagination, but nor are they a romantic collection of interchangeable warriors. There is not an equal distribution of talent and never has been.
Claudio Ranieri's sublime, counter-surging formula depends on Vardy's extraordinary acceleration, Mahrez's astute eye for a pass and the fortuitous fact that both footballers are enjoying the season of their lives at the same time.
That's not to downplay the colossal contributions of their colleagues, particularly Danny Drinkwater and N'Golo Kante, whose defensive cover helped secure five consecutive clean sheets before the 2-2 draw with West Ham last weekend.
But Vardy stood at the apex. He was the go-to guy, Leicester's trusty get-out-of-jail card to throw down whenever a stalemate threatened to turn sticky.
Ranieri may titillate and distract in press conferences like a magician trying to hide the rabbit under his hat, but his sound-bites cannot silence the statisticians.
Vardy accounts for more than a third of Leicester's league goals.
Their team ethic has been exemplary and Ranieri will insist that his striker is first among equals. But some men will always be more equal than others.
POINT TO PROVE
The Swansea game offers an unwanted chance to prove otherwise.
When Vardy tried to sell a dive against West Ham last week, he sold out his teammates instead. He has a point to prove when he returns.
Tomorrow, it's Leicester's turn.
All title challengers stumble, but the Foxes are unique in the sense that they are expected to stumble. Sceptics wait for the inevitable fall from grace.
Even now, with a five-point advantage, there is still a fear of a traumatising end to the fairy tale, particularly when a plot twist is guaranteed.
It either comes on Tuesday morning (Singapore time), when Tottenham take a stroll past West Brom. Or a secondary character in Leonardo Ulloa enters the stage and steals the show.
Ranieri has already hinted that the 29-year-old Argentinian is ready to fill Vardy's boots, if not his glass slippers.
Ulloa's nerveless penalty in the 95th minute against West Ham highlighted a striker not overawed by the big occasion, but his issue isn't one of temperament. He just isn't as fast as Vardy.
Not many two-legged mammals are, but Ranieri's soak-and-surge strategy thrives on fleet-footed forwards. Ulloa's (above) flesh is willing, but the genetics is weak.
His aerial ability, on the other hand, isn't in dispute, which may encourage Leicester's traditional 4-4-2 to adopt an even more retro approach, with Mahrez and Marc Albrighton swopping incisive balls between centre backs for crosses from the flanks.
Or Mahrez could sit on the shoulder of Shinji Okazaki - an underrated, intelligent forward, whose selfless play underpins Leicester's counter-attacking.
Whatever the option, Ranieri gets to live up to the old nickname. He must tinker. He needs to tweak a line-up that had been previously blessed with consistency, reliability and astonishing efficiency.
The title race could depend on tomorrow's tinkering.
It doesn't have to be pretty. With Cinderella out, the ugly sisters can take centre stage. As long as they don't end up looking like pumpkins, no one will care.
The Foxes have insisted all season long that they are not a one-man team.
Now they must prove it.
"It’s a new situation for us because Vardy hasn’t missed a game yet, but we can cope. Every time Ulloa comes off the bench, he has done well and he’s a big part of the team."
— Leicester left back Christian Fuchs
"We know he has one match off and our preparation is without him. He trained very well and he was not happy, but he enjoyed the training session. We knew he had a suspension and then we move on."
— Foxes boss Claudio Ranieri, on coping without Jamie Vardy
VARDY BY THE NUMBERS
Jamie Vardy has scored 22 of Leicester’s 59 goals in the EPL this season.
The Foxes will be without Vardy in their starting line-up for the first time in this campaign — he had started 45 successive league games (28 wins, 11 draws, 6 defeats) for them.
Leicester’s win rate over the past two seasons in the top flight when Vardy has started is 48.3 per cent, compared to 25 per cent without him.