Pope leaves Vardy without a prayer
Burnley goalkeeper looks more likely to get Euro 2020 call-up
|(Chris Wood 56, Ashley Westwood 79)||(Harvey Barnes 33)|
England manager Gareth Southgate was keen to monitor the progress of a potential Euro 2020 candidate in Burnley last night.
There was one on show, but he was the wrong player.
With Harry Kane expected to miss the European Championship in the summer, Jamie Vardy looks a possible replacement, even in self-enforced retirement.
Southgate may still make a case for the 33-year-old to return from international exile, but that's a conversation for another day.
Right now, Southgate should hail Nick Pope.
The Burnley goalkeeper delivered an unlikely 2-1 victory against Leicester City, guiding his struggling side away from the relegation pressure cooker and reminding the Three Lions of his international suitability.
After a solid evening's work of dependable shot-stopping and reliable distribution, Pope pulled off a captivating audition for the goalkeeper's gloves at Euro 2020.
With the score at 1-1, he saved Vardy's penalty, quite spectacularly, and then denied the Foxes' striker a second time just moments later, blocking a close-range effort.
Inspired by their goalkeeper's heroics, the Clarets scampered down the other end and hammered in the winner via Ashley Westwood.
In a duel between England footballers at the opposite ends of their international career, the 27-year-old custodian prevailed. Southgate could use him at Euro 2020. Burnley boss Sean Dyche certainly can't win without him.
It's hard to overstate how poor the hosts were - and Leicester weren't far behind - in a largely plodding contest until Pope intervened.
Games are occasionally won in second gear, but rarely with teams in reverse. Burnley and Leicester initially showed less physical enthusiasm than a patient heading for a colonoscopy.
The opening half betrayed two sides struggling with form and fluency, not to mention lingering, New Year exhaustion.
After four consecutive league defeats, Dyche's men appeared to have struck upon the unique idea of boring their opponents to death, keeping everyone behind the ball and occasionally lumping it up to a neighbouring postcode of Jay Rodriguez.
The Foxes were no better.
An unexpected home defeat by Southampton last week had shaken confidence. Brendan Rodgers brought in Nampalys Mendy and Christian Fuchs to add muscle and mischief, but Leicester still laboured.
They deserve credit for pushing Manchester City for second spot, but this was the kind of performance that made their current, lofty position slightly bewildering.
If the Foxes really do represent the best of the rest, then the EPL has splintered into two, distinct groups now: Liverpool and everyone else. A chasm divides them.
Leicester offered just one glimpse of their underlying quality in the 33rd minute, when Harvey Barnes collected a loose ball on the halfway line and powered away from wheezing defenders before shooting past Pope.
But the home side found a pulse in the second half and Dwight McNeil's corner-kick eventually found the boot of Chris Wood in the 56th minute. His tap-in was deserved. Leicester's application was slipping away.
Even Vardy's powers of concentration deserted him. When Barnes was fouled in the box, the veteran striker stepped up to convert the penalty. He didn't.
Pope palmed away Vardy's low spot-kick to deny the Englishman. Vardy seemed stunned. The strike was competent enough, but the save was superlative.
The goalkeeper was at it again, moments later, beating away a close-range effort from Vardy to keep the hosts in the game. The save changed the contest's complexion as Burnley took the lead soon after.
On a dramatic counter-attack, Charlie Taylor's pass cleared Jonny Evans and ended up in Westwood's path. Surging forward, the midfielder smashed in the winner.
Like Man City a day earlier, another distant title-contenders have dropped points. Leicester are playing for second place now.
But it's not a one-horse race between the sticks for England. Southgate may still be praying for a decent striker, but at least he has hope in Pope.