Leicester City 2 West Ham United 2
After all the breathless controversy, high drama and bewildering refereeing, the bare facts are that Leicester City’s lead on top of the Premier League has been extended to eight points and at the final whistle there was so much noise and defiance to create the lasting impression that nobody here envisages any reason to consign those “Champions” scarves to the shredding machine.
But where to start? The second half was bedlam. Both teams left the pitch with a pile of grievances and the lingering image is of the referee, Jon Moss, being escorted off the pitch at the final whistle by a man wearing the look of a nightclub bouncer.
Moss has been one of the Premier League's more erratic referees for some time and a decision was clearly taken that he needed some strong-arm security after a day's work featuring a red card for Jamie Vardy, a penalty for each side and so much scrutiny that, if nothing else, he is assured of a part in the film that is being planned about the striker's life.
Leicester’s complaints all went back to that moment, after 57 minutes, when Vardy was sent off for an alleged dive and Claudio Ranieri’s team were denied a penalty that would have given them the chance to make it 2-0. Vardy had already been booked and that decision threatened to have serious ramifications when West Ham scored twice, in the 84th and 86th minute, to turn the game upside down.
At 1-0, Leicester had been advancing towards a position whereby they could have sealed the most implausible title success of the modern era if Tottenham, in second position, lost at Stoke City on Monday and against West Bromwich Albion on Monday week and Ranieri’s men beat Swansea City next Sunday. In the space of a few minutes, Leicester suddenly looked as vulnerable as they have done for a long while, on the brink a harrowing defeat, with a suspension looming for their leading scorer and the sudden, jarring damage that might be inflicted to their confidence levels.
Yet there was still time for Moss to add one final twist and, for all Leicester's complaints, the bottom line is that his most wretched decision was the one that saw the home team being awarded a penalty in the fifth minute of stoppage time. Moss must have seen something not many others did in Andy Carroll's innocuous challenge on Jeffrey Schlupp. All that really can be said for certainty is that it gave Leicester their get-out-of-jail card and Leonardo Ulloa took his penalty well to save a point. It was the final kick of a wild, eccentric match.
Slaven Bilic, West Ham’s manager, called it a dive on Schlupp’s part and shook his head blankly as tried to make sense of it. Carroll called Moss’s performance “unacceptable” and it is not often a referee manages to upset just about everybody, from both teams, in the stadium. Leicester’s goalkeeper, Kasper Schmeichel, had to restrain Robert Huth from confronting him at the end and Vardy went too far after his red card with a finger-jabbing reaction that might warrant the attention of the Football Association’s disciplinary department.
The red card will polarise opinion and, though it is not easy second-guessing Moss, perhaps it was lodged in the referee’s mind that Vardy has a habit of initiating contact from defenders by deliberately adjusting his body direction, often at high speed, so he turns into them rather than the other way round.
On the flipside, Angelo Ogbonna did have his hand on the player’s shoulder before they tangled legs and when Moss blew his whistle the majority of the crowd expected a penalty.
Vardy had opened the scoring with a breakaway goal starting from a West Ham corner and set up by the ubiquitous, indefatigable N'Golo Kanté, in the 18th minute, but Bilic's team had always looked dangerous and, to give Moss his due, several Leicester defenders had been guilty of grappling with opponents at set-pieces before the referee decided to punish Wes Morgan and award the first penalty. It was, strictly speaking, the correct decision and, as Bilic noted, it has long been a favoured tactic of Leicester's defenders. Yet it was perplexing, too, that it was punished only once, after Winston Reid went to ground, and that later in the match Moss waved on play when Ogbonna did something similar to Huth at the other end.
When Carroll made it 1-1 from the penalty spot it was the first goal Leicester had conceded in nine hours and 34 minutes, going back to the 2-2 draw against West Bromwich Albion on 1 March, and it was followed by a peach of a shot from Aaron Cresswell to double the lead with a slashing volley into the top corner.
Amid everything else, Bilic was not even asked about that moment, barely 70 seconds into the match, when Dimitri Payet clipped a free-kick into the penalty and Cheikhou Kouyaté’s header flicked off Schmeichel’s glove, ricocheted off the inside of one post before striking the opposite side of the goal frame and, almost in slow motion, rebounding into the goalkeeper’s grateful arms.
“There was everything,” Bilic said. “Goals, penalties, a red card, tackling, crosses, everything.” Everything except a winner. Yet the final act ended with Schmeichel clenching his fists and roaring at the Leicester fans. “That was worth more than one point,” Ranieri said of Ulloa’s penalty. “Psychologically, we are there again.”
Man of the match N’Golo Kanté (Leicester City)