Selhurst Park could be a banana skin for Leicester, says Neil Humphreys
Leicester must beware of this banana skin
CRYSTAL PALACE v LEICESTER CITY
(Tonight, 11pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Neutrals are crossing fingers. Romantics are lost in the moment and cold-blooded cynics are being worn down with each unexpected victory.
Apart from supporters still involved in the title race, everyone wants the underdogs to have their day.
Crystal Palace should not stop them, not on current form. Selhurst Park must fall so the sentimental favourites can reign at their open-top bus parade.
That was the overriding sentiment on the morning of May 5, 2014.
But Palace didn't get the memo. The Eagles didn't drown beneath the gushing goodwill for their opponents. They tore out the pre-written page of the fairy tale and scribbled their own, anarchic ending.
Liverpool drew at Selhurst Park in May 2014. Manchester City also lost at Selhurst Park in April 2015. And Leicester head to Selhurst Park tonight.
Title-chasers who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
The Eagles are in the business of banana skins. They are the killers of dreams. Selhurst Park doesn't do romance novels. The place is fifty shades of grim reality.
Steven Gerrard's Chelsea slip didn't end Liverpool's title campaign in 2014. It was an unappetising starter, certainly, but the main course came at Selhurst Park.
The Reds threw away a 3-0 lead to stagger off the field, mortally wounded, with a 3-3 draw. Similarly, Manchester City's unexpected defeat by Alan Pardew's men last season effectively served as Chelsea's coronation.
Palace do not play by the rules in such fixtures. Nor do Leicester, which makes tonight's game as compelling as it is unpredictable.
Every fun fact, match stat and form guide points to a comfortable away victory for the league leaders, which doesn't sit particularly well with Claudio Ranieri's unlikely lads.
All season long, the Foxes have flourished when scuttling beneath the radar.
Three 1-0 victories in four games suggest either champions-elect churning out narrow wins or startled rabbits caught in a global spotlight.
The results are probably a combination of the two, and understandably so.
Until recently, the title talk was a surreal, out-of-body experience, easily brushed aside, easily ignored.
But the trophy looms large on the horizon now like an undiscovered treasure, drawing them in. Before they could turn away. Now they can almost touch it.
For a club accustomed to failure, the thought of success must be a torture. Just ask Gerrard. Not getting close is manageable. Getting within touching distance is unbearable.
Ranieri is proving a master of misdirection, discussing everything from his long-term career plans and his lack of interest in the Italy job, to avoid mentioning the T-word.
But the very qualities that propelled Leicester's surge to the summit only add to the pressure now.
They're human; normal guys literally out of their league.
Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Daniel Drinkwater and Shinji Okazaki have been regular lads giggling their way through the roller-coaster ride. But it's all becoming a little irregular now.
Mahrez and Vardy are being linked to clubs that they previously came across only in PlayStation games. Okazaki is pinching overhead goals from comic books and Drinkwater has just been called up to the England squad.
Logic dictates that the Foxes scamper past a side that haven't won a league game since Dec 19, but Leicester's campaign has been entirely illogical.
It has made less sense than Palace's recent home success against title contenders.
Pardew knows his side lack the defensive discipline of their opponents, but he does have pace in abundance.
Rather than try and understand their enemies, Palace will seek to emulate them; springy counter-attack against springy counter-attack.
What Vardy, Mahrez and Okazaki attempt at one end, Yannick Bolasie, Wilfried Zaha and perhaps even Emmanuel Adebayor should seek to copy at the other.
Caution doesn't play to Palace's strengths and may even expose their defensive shortcomings. They have a need for speed and nothing to lose.
Leicester know the feeling.
The idea of unleashing their eager sprinters, tearing across the turf like tongue-flapping greyhounds without a care in the world, must seem like a warm, and increasingly distant, memory.
Now, like Liverpool and Man City before them, Leicester arrive at Palace as serious title challengers with everything to lose.
In theory, the Foxes have little to fear. If they step out and see a disjointed side spiralling down the table, they'll extend their lead at the top to eight points.
But, if they see a pitch littered with banana skins, then the popular fairy tale could get another ugly chapter written at Selhurst Park.
Those unfeeling Eagles are poised with their pens.
No team can change my mind. I am very proud if they are thinking about me in Italy and everywhere, but this is my club. We are just starting to build. If the owner is happy with me, I am happy with him. If it's possible, I would like to stay (for) a long time.
- Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri (above)
- 8.45pm: Everton v Arsenal
- 11pm: Chelsea v West Ham
- 11pm: Crystal Palace v Leicester
- 11pm: Watford v Stoke City
- 11pm: West Brom v Norwich
- 1.30am: Swansea v Aston Villa
- 9.30pm: Newcastle v Sunderland
- 9.30pm: Southampton v Liverpool
- 11.59pm: Man City v Man United
- 11.59pm: Tottenham v Bournemouth
Eagles ready to spoil Foxes' party
Alan Pardew is backing Crystal Palace to be title spoilers again when they host league leaders Leicester tonight.
Palace derailed Liverpool's bid to be champions when they drew 3-3 with the Reds in May 2015 and the Eagles struck again in April last year, all but ending Manchester City's hopes with a surprise 2-1 victory.
Leicester arrive at Selhurst Park five points clear at the top of the table, and Palace have not won in the league since December, but Pardew believes his players are ready to upset the odds for a third consecutive year.
"It has been a banana skin, this place, in the past and it's typical of Crystal Palace," Pardew said.
"Our history is littered with upsets against the odds, that's what this club are about."
Pardew continued: "If we were playing, for example, Norwich at home or Sunderland, we'd be expected to win, the pressure is on us, and in the situation where we haven't won games for a while, that might not be ideal.
"But we're playing the perfect team - everything is falling for them. Not one pundit thinks we'll win, so that's actually when Palace are good."
Leicester have found victories harder to come by in recent weeks, having scraped three 1-0 wins and a draw from their last four league matches.
The Foxes are now hot favourites to win the title with eight games left to play, but Pardew believes anxiety will take hold during the run-in.
"It's only natural. Human instinct is when you're trying to achieve something magnificent like they are, you're going to start worrying and doubting," Pardew said.
"It's been almost the perfect season for them, but it doesn't always come all the way through, that perfect run. Maybe their blips are still to come."
At one stage, it looked like Palace could be a surprise contenders to make the European spots, as they sat fifth in the table at the end of December.
A run of no league wins in 12, however, means they are now just eight points clear of the relegation places and Pardew admits to feeling envious of Leicester's success.
"The stars have aligned and planets have aligned for them this season - hardly any injuries, hardly any mistakes in their campaign, now the run is clear for them, they are the clear favourites," Pardew said.
"Even Alex Ferguson said they're going to win it, probably even before the last three games. For us, it's envy a little bit for what they've done and also admiration.
"They're not star names, most of them. Danny Simpson, I had at Newcastle - we released him thinking we could get someone better and here he is in a position to win the league.
"I take my hat off to him and a number of their players."
Pardew will make a late decision on the fitness of captain Mile Jedinak, who has a sore back, but strikers Connor Wickham and Marouane Chamakh both remain out with adductor injuries.
- PA Sport.