UNITED Kingdom, April 3 – Leicester City captain Wes Morgan scored his first goal in almost a year as the Premier League fairytale-title chasers edged Southampton 1-0 on Sunday to establish a potentially decisive seven-point lead.
Tottenham Hotspur’s 1-1 draw at Liverpool on Saturday had given Claudio Ranieri’s men an opportunity to strengthen their grip on first place and they duly took it courtesy of Morgan’s 38th-minute header.
It was Leicester’s fifth 1-0 victory in six matches and with just six games of the season remaining, the 132-year-old club’s first ever top-flight title is now tantalisingly within sight.
The east Midlands side were bottom of the table a year ago, but require just 12 points from a possible 18 to complete one of the most sensational underdog triumphs in world football history.
Ronald Koeman’s Southampton, who had two penalty appeals for handball turned away, remain seventh and face an uphill battle to force their way into the Europa League berths.
With chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha laying on free doughnuts and bottles of beer for home fans to mark his birthday and ‘Leicester City Champions 2016’ scarves for sale on the walk to the ground, the atmosphere could barely have been more festive at a sun-soaked King Power Stadium.
In a bid to counter Leicester’s two-pronged strike-force of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, Southampton deployed a back three and while the home side made the early running, the clearest opportunities of the first half fell to the visitors.
Their best chance saw Graziano Pelle free Sadio Mane, who rounded Kasper Schmeichel and shot, only for the ball to strike Danny Simpson’s right forearm as he came across to cover the vacant goal.
Southampton appealed for a penalty, but the right-back’s arm had remained close to his body so referee Michael Oliver waved play on.
– Austin appeal –
Pelle also headed over from a Cedric Soares cross, while Jose Fonte fully extended Schmeichel with a rising drive from 25 yards and Jordie Clasie shot narrowly over after outmuscling Riyad Mahrez.
But with Southampton poised to poop the party, Leicester struck, Christian Fuchs guiding a cross into the box from the left flank and Morgan outjumping Clasie to plant a captain’s header inside the left-hand post.
Dusan Tadic replaced Matt Targett at half-time for Southampton, who changed to a 4-2-3-1 system, but they were almost undone within seconds of the restart, with Victor Wanyama booked for putting an arm in Vardy’s face as the England striker looked to burst clear.
Just past the hour, it took a superb one-handed stop from Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster to prevent Fonte steering Danny Drinkwater’s cross into his own net.
Ten minutes later Forster was at it again, parrying from right on the goal-line after Simpson took aim at a gaping goal from Vardy’s low cross.
Koeman had seen his side come from 2-0 down to beat Liverpool 3-2 in their previous game and he threw caution to the wind by sending on Charlie Austin and James Ward-Prowse for Clasie and Steven Davis.
Seconds after coming on Austin had a strong penalty appeal when his shot struck Robert Huth’s outstretched left hand, but to the frustration of Southampton — and Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City — Oliver was again unmoved.
Vardy might have settled the home nerves late on, only for Forster to repel his prodded effort, but it mattered not.