Leicester City wrapped up an unforgettable year with a hard-fought 1-0 victory at home to West Ham United, as record signing Islam Slimani headed in the only goal of the game.
As some pressure was beginning to squeeze on Claudio Ranieri’s men, a gritty performance earned them all three points in what was billed by many as a must-win game.
Slimani’s goal on 20 minutes from a fantastic Marc Albrighton cross was the difference between the two sides as City opened up a six-point gap between themselves and the drop zone.
Leicester started the brighter of the two teams, with some good link-up play between Slimani, Demarai Gray and Riyad Mahrez resulting in the latter chesting down and volleying, but the Algerian was denied by a comfortable push over from Darren Randolph with just two minutes on the clock.
Two minutes later and again City went close. This time, after some neat interchange between Danny Simpson and Albrighton down the right flank, Albrighton stood up a cross to the back post, but Slimani, on the stretch and at a tight angle, headed against the upright.
Following a couple of half chances for West Ham, which saw Aaron Cresswell’s effort blocked and Michail Antonio unable to turn in a Cresswell cross, which glanced off the head of Wes Morgan on its way through, making it a difficult, yet certain, chance for the Hammers.
But with 20 minutes played, Danny Drinkwater picked the ball up on half-way and drove at the West Ham back line; after playing the ball out wide to Albrighton, the winger’s first-time, inch-perfect cross was met by the Dragon Slayer, who got the better of Winston Reid to head back across Randolph for his sixth goal for the club.
Despite some considerable criticism for both Albrighton and Slimani following the Boxing Day defeat against Everton, it was fitting that it was this duo who combined so magnificently well for the winning goal today.
Albrighton then displayed his defensive capabilities soon after with a fantastic, last-ditch challenge to deny West Ham a certain shot at goal from close range.
After the goal, West Ham embedded themselves into the game and started to apply pressure to the Foxes. This, coupled with some questionable refereeing from Anthony Taylor, resulted in the City fans growing agitated and frustrated as the half drew to a close.
Firstly, Taylor denied Mahrez a free-kick on the half-way line when Reid came through the back of him and almost stopped to walk back, knowing he had fouled the winger, who was given a freer role behind Slimani today. Moments later, Daniel Amartey was penalised for blocking Dimitri Payet but his free-kick was poor and struck the wall.
Payet again went close on 38 minutes when the ball fell to him at a tight angle, but Kasper Schmeichel spread himself in trademark fashion to make the save, before Amartey tackled Andre Ayew brilliantly. Then, with four minutes of the half remaining, Cresswell’s cross was swept onto the bar by Antonio, with Schmeichel helpless.
It was a frantic end to the half, reminiscent of the latter stages of a cup tie, but Leicester almost doubled their advantage. Again, Drinkwater played in Albrighton, who this time delivered a low cross for Slimani, but Havard Nordtveit made a crucial challenge.
There was controversy towards the end of the half as Drinkwater almost paid the ultimate price for a rare mistake, but Antonio’s square pass for Ayew was intercepted fabulously by Simpson, with the ball breaking for Payet but Robert Huth was deemed to have fouled the Frechman despite keeping his studs down and winning the ball cleanly, to the anger of the home fans. Fortunately, the free-kick was saved by Schmeichel, as Gray launched a counter-attack.
Early in the second half, Amartey was booked for a high tackle on Mark Noble, mistimed rather than reckless. Although he came back on for a while, Noble was forced off and Slaven Bilic will be hoping he will recover in time for the visit of Manchester United to the London Stadium on Monday evening.
With three-quarters of the match played, Schmeichel produced a fine save to maintain the score-line. With Albrighton booked for a challenge on the edge of the area, Cresswell stepped up to take the free-kick. His low drive would have been fairly comfortable for the Dane, but the ball took a nick off the boot of Ben Chilwell and diverted towards the bottom corner, but Schmeichel readjusted quickly to prevent the ball crossing the line.
Chilwell, who got the nod ahead of Christian Fuchs, was then pushed into a more advanced, left midfield role when Fuchs replaced Mahrez, allowing Gray to come into the hole.
Within a matter of moments of this switch-up by the Tinkerman, Chilwell was on the receiving end of a nasty looking challenge by Nordtveit, whose high, kung-fu tackle caught the midriff of the England U21 international. However, this was only deemed worthy of a yellow card by referee Taylor, leaving Leicester players and fans incensed, none more so than Schmeichel who was booked for his protests.
After a series of further cynical yellow cards and substitutions, Ben Chilwell saw his effort blocked and Shinji Okazaki headed over following a well-worked corner routine by Albrighton and Drinkwater.
But with moments to go, Andy Carroll, who was a threat and an incredible physical presence throughout, had the best chance to equalise for the visitors. He got in between Huth and Morgan but headed agonisingly wide for the travelling Hammers fans, many of whom would have backed their man to at least hit the target, if not find the back of the net.
In the third minute of the six added on at the end of the game, Danny Simpson made another crucial intervention, this time blocking Angelo Ogbonna’s goal-bound header as Leicester held on for an important win to conclude a quite remarkable 2016, one that Ranieri says will live in the memories of everyone involved at the club forever.
After the game, Ranieri said, “It is amazing year, unforgettable. 2016 remain in our hearts and our minds. Not only me but our players, chairmen, staff, everybody in Leicester, our fans. Was something special but was special to win today against a team with lots of confidence.”
He went on to praise Albrighton and Slimani following their involvement in the goal. “Slimani’s header is a masterpiece. When the ball comes from the cross, Slimani is fantastic. We are to make more crosses for him,” the Italian explained to the press.
Ranieri also stated that his side very rarely lose if they score, with Leicester winning every game this season in which they have scored the first goal and, when discussing their away record and looking ahead to Middlesbrough, he said, “All the numbers must finish, sooner or later we are to win away. We made fantastic performance today against a very, very confident team. It is important to keep this momentum and also need to be confident after up and down, up and down. I am very confident for 2017.”
He concluded with a special word for goalkeeper Schmeichel, who he described as a “fantastic leader” for his side.
Ranieri’s counterpart, Slaven Bilic, meanwhile, expressed that he was “disappointed, angry and frustrated” following the defeat. On the nature of the game and Amartey’s tackle on Noble, Bilic said, “some people are trying to say it was a bad-tempered game, I didn’t see it like that I saw it as very important game for both sides and few players from our side and one or two more from their side went for full-speed tackling but on the ball.”
It was a dogged, determined performance from Leicester this evening as they claimed all three points in a crucial match. The win, which had some glimpses of a repeat of last season’s eventful 2-2 draw in April, moves Leicester onto 20 points at the midway stage of the season, six clear of the drop zone.
Leicester City (4-2-3-1) – Kasper Schmeichel: 8; Danny Simpson: 8, Wes Morgan: 7, Robert Huth: 7, Ben Chilwell: 7; Marc Albrighton: 8, Danny Drinkwater: 8, Daniel Amartey: 6, Demarai Gray: 7; Riyad Mahrez: 7; Islam Slimani: 8. Subs: Christian Fuchs (for Mahrez, 70): 7, Shinji Okazaki (for Gray, 80): 6, Leonardo Ulloa (for Slimani, 82): 6.
West Ham United (4-2-3-1) – Darren Randolph: 7; Havard Nordtveit: 5, Winston Reid: 7, Angelo Ogbonna: 7, Aaron Cresswell: 8; Mark Noble: 6, Cheikhou Kouyate: 6; Michail Antonio: 7, Andre Ayew: 6, Dimitri Payet: 7; Andy Carroll: 8. Subs: Manuel Lanzini (for Noble, 57): 6, Sofiane Feghouli (for Ayew, 65): 5, Edimilson Fernandes (for Kouyate, 78): 5.