If it is remarkable to accept Leicester City have been outside the top four of the Premier League for only one matchday since September 2019 – on the last day of last season – then the seven-point buffer from fifth place they hold thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho’s latest match-winning effort should now suffice to ensure their place in next season’s Champions League.
Iheanacho continued his superb goalscoring run with the decisive goal 10 minutes from time as Leicester came from behind to earn their victory against a well-organised Crystal Palace side who had led through Wilfried Zaha’s 10th goal of the season.
Leicester were more intense in the second period and, after Iheanacho had set up Timothy Castagne’s equaliser, played with the increased tempo that Brendan Rodgers called for to earn the victory that means they have equalled last season’s finishing tally of 62 points.
It will surely take more than Tottenham Hotspur’s mantle as a “big six club” to tempt Rodgers away from the East Midlands now that Leicester’s place in the existing elite European competition looks close to being assured.
Iheanacho’s 14th goal in his last 14 Premier League games arrived when he ran on to Jonny Evans’s simple lofted pass into the inside-right channel, held off Patrick van Aanholt, cut inside Scott Dann and cracked home a left-foot shot high past a startled Vicente Guaita in the Palace goal.
“What was really pleasing was the patience we showed in the game,” Rodgers said afterwards. “Then we had that hunger and desire to get the three points.”
Leicester, who travel to Southampton this Friday and then host Newcastle on 7 May, finish their league campaign with games against Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham, either side of their FA Cup final against Chelsea, so this second win in four days was timely. Kasper Schmeichel’s yell on the final whistle, which echoed around the empty King Power Stadium, said it all.
If last Thursday’s win against West Brom was relatively straightforward, this success was anything but. Leicester had a bag of good chances, both at the start of the game, when Jamie Vardy could have scored a hat-trick inside the opening 10 minutes as the full moon rose above the stadium, and late on, when Palace threw men forward chasing an equaliser.
It was against the run of play when Palace attacked, let alone scored, in the 12th minute. Youri Tielemans remained in a heap on the ground after a robust challenge from Christian Benteke but when the ball reached Eberechi Eze, Zaha timed his run to perfection to latch on to the through pass and shoot, first time and right-footed, through the hand of Schmeichel. It was his sixth goal in his last seven Premier League games against Leicester. They are his most giving top-flight opponents.
Thus the shape of the game was set: Leicester attacking, probing through their wing-backs, Wilfred Ndidi getting forward to assist Tielemans and James Maddison behind the front pair; Palace happy to get men behind the ball and play on the counterattack. But Leicester were not finding their stride, their best chance in this spell arriving when Caglar Soyuncu blasted over after Evans had headed back Tielemans’ corner.
Leicester came out for the second half pumped up, evidently ready to compete on a physical level, and within four minutes they had levelled.
Tielemans played a cute ball into the right-hand channel for Iheanacho to run on to and hold up before the striker turned and played an intelligent short pass back for Castagne. The right wing-back shaped his body to swerve a left-foot shot high into the far top corner.
Yet such was the topsy-turvy nature of the game, Palace could have been back in front within six minutes as they capitalised on Leicester’s high back line. Zaha cut back in from the left wing and played his pass with precise timing for Jaïro Riedewald to run clean in on Schmeichel’s goal but as he squared the ball for Benteke to bypass the goalkeeper, Evans hurled himself into a goal-saving tackle. “He’s one of the best defenders in European football,” Rodgers said. “That tackle summed up Jonny Evans.”
Leicester never gave up their belief, and Rodgers helped the team with their desire to play higher up the field with his substitutions, leading to Iheanacho’s unstoppable 17th goal of the season.
Palace may be comfortably clear of the relegation zone but Roy Hodgson does not believe his team will drop off. “I don’t fear that because I know the players,” the Palace manager said. “That’s not the kind of group we are. I don’t think anyone who watched the game could accuse us of not doing out utmost.”