Not just a one-off: Leicester City and West Ham reinforce emergence of new Premier League era
The dominance of the Invincibles, the emergence of Chelsea, the consolidation and dismantling of the Big Four, and the entry of fresh faces in the hierarchy of the league in the shape of Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur — the Premier League has been a case of intertwining eras in the past decade and more.
The latest weekend of matches saw Chelsea take on Manchester City at Stamford Bridge with five games to play in the season, and one could have been pardoned for picking it as the clash of the gameweek. At the start of the season, this would probably have been the game with the title challenge in its narrative.
But few knew that the winds of change were blowing again in the Premier League and a new era was in the offing. An era of astonishment, an era of disbelief, an era of democracy, and an era where anyone can beat anyone.
There was a title to be chased this weekend, a Champions League spot up for grabs and two teams who have left their fans in awe. But none of these things involved the Chelsea-Manchester City clash; it rightly took a backseat to the game featuring Leicester City and West Ham United, the protagonists of the new era in the Premier League.
While Manchester City showed their mettle in a 3-0 win, it was over-shadowed by the dismal and almost disgraceful display from Chelsea. The London club made Manchester City look like world beaters when, in reality, this wasn't the case as proven time and again during the season.
On the other hand, the high-stake battle between Leicester City and West Ham United didn't have the otherwise familiar premise of survival, but was all about glory. Title-chasing Leicester City took on Champions League hopefuls West Ham United. The occasion called for a monumental performance, and even though the big names failed to match it, what they produced on the pitch more than did justice to it.
The stage was set for rampant and run-away leaders Leicester to move a step closer to the title, but West Ham United had other ideas. The table toppers were made aware of the quality in the contest just two minutes into the game when PFA Award nominee Dimitri Payet's free-kick was helped on by Chiekhou Kouyate, who was unfortunate to see the ball rebound to the other post and into the glad arms of Kasper Schmeichel.
This set the tone for the game as attacks were launched at both ends and intent made clear very early by both sides. However, the home side, backed by over 32,000 supporters, snatched the lead by a move that has almost become their signature. A sweeping counter-attacking move had Mahrez and Kante collaborating to feed Jamie Vardy, who did his usual business of scoring. The perfect response from a team at the top of the table — weather an early storm and then pack a telling punch to deflate the opposition.
But, the best are known for turning the tide and Leicester's jittery nerves were put to test by a West Ham United side who stormed back into the game in the second half. Bringing on Andy Carroll from the bench wasn't just decisive in adding bite to the Hammers attack, but also portrayed the strength in depth in Slavan Bilic's outfit. The big guns always have someone to fall back to if things don't go according to plan, and West Ham had one in Carroll.
Aided by Jamie Vardy's red card in the second half, the Hammers took the game by the scruff of the neck and tore into Leicester's strong resolve. Two quick goals in the final ten minutes of regulation time turned the game on its head and the title challenge seemed to slip for Claudio Ranieri's men, who didn't know what had hit them. They were forced on the back foot by a confident and tenacious West Ham United. The visitors mixed sweat with swagger to orchestrate a fabulous comeback, one that you would associate with the 'so-called' big boys in the league. Aaron Cresswell's goal that put West Ham ahead was an exquisite finish and one which the Hazards, Rooneys and Agueros of the league would have been particularly proud of.
Leicester and West Ham are winners in their own right this season for what they have achieved and can be excused for settling for what's already there in their kitty, but real winners don't accede to consolation.
Leicester want to be champions and they showcased why they are favourites. A late goal from substitute Leonardo Ulloa earned them what seemed an unlikely point when the game moved into stoppage time. The celebration spoke volumes; Leicester knew they had conjured up the exact stuff which champions are made of.
The man in the middle is often found wanting in high stakes games and referee Jon Moss seemed to have succumbed to that. While his decision to send Vardy off seemed right, the two penalties that he awarded later showed that the occasion of the game got to him. Having made two unpopular decisions, Moss felt the need to make amends as he awarded Leicester a late penalty that was soft to say the least. It was the desire of both the teams to win the game that put the referee under all kinds of pressure.
Leicester and West Ham have lost just nine games between themselves, a tally that is matched by each of the Manchester clubs and two less than defending champions Chelsea alone.
Fuelled by new TV rights that see a more uniform distribution of TV revenue to all the Premier League clubs and potent scouting systems, teams like Leicester and West Ham have found the necessary finances to truly magnify their potential and unearth talents like Riyad Mahrez and Dimitri Payet under the noses of the big clubs.
Leicester and West Ham, the two greatest stories of the season so far, have added yet another chapter to it. The 2-2 draw gives them reason to believe that they are more than just a surprise package and this might not be a one-off crazy season in the Premier League.
As the old saying goes, the table never lies and Leicester and West Ham United have dished out fresh testament to that Premier League cliché.
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