LONDON – The lethal striking duo of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy combined again to nudge Leicester closer to the title on Saturday, although Arsenal remains primed to pounce on any slip-ups by the leaders after ending a three-game winless run in the Premier League.
Vardy, the league’s top scorer, set up Mahrez to score his 16th goal of the season at Crystal Palace and clinch Leicester’s third successive 1-0 win.
With seven games remaining, Leicester is eight points clear of Tottenham, which hosts Bournemouth on Sunday, while Arsenal is a further three points back in third after a 2-0 win at Everton.
Leicester’s fans are already daring to believe their team will lift the league trophy for the first time in May.
“We’re going to win the league,” they chanted continuously in unison at Selhurst Park for more than 15 minutes after the final whistle.
“Our fans are singing — that is fantastic, but we have to stay calm and concentrated,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said.
A year ago Leicester was rock bottom of the league and facing relegation to the League Championship. A late recovery saved Leicester but not Nigel Pearson’s job.
Former Chelsea manager Ranieri was hired despite an 11-year absence from the Premier League — and more recently being fired by Greece — with the task of avoiding relegation again.
“I remember at the start of the season, I haven’t forgotten: The goal was to save the team,” Ranieri said. “Now everybody is speaking about us. Not only in England but around the world.”
Never have expectations been so thoroughly exceeded in the Premier League.
In contrast, Arsenal has underachieved since last winning the title in 2004 but Arsene Wenger isn’t giving up yet.
First-half goals at Goodison Park kept Arsenal’s unlikely title chances alive, with Danny Welbeck running through unchecked to score in the seventh minute and Alex Iwobi marking his first league start with his first league goal in the 42nd minute on a counter-attack.
The league is Arsenal’s last hope of silverware after being eliminated from the F.A. Cup and Champions League in the last week.
“I am pleased how we responded under pressure,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said. “The character of my players was questioned. We would have been out of (the title race) if we hadn’t have won.
“I’m not masochistic enough to consider us out. We are not the flavor of the week but if we don’t believe, nobody will do it for us.”
Everton is 12th but has a chance of taking the F.A. Cup off Arsenal after reaching the semifinals last week.
Chelsea is only playing for pride, having started the season as champions. The only pleasure for the 10th place team on Saturday was stopping West Ham from moving into the top four Champions League qualification spots after Chelsea twice came from behind to earn a 2-2 draw through Cesc Fabregas’ goals.
Fabregas’ brilliant free kick canceled out Manuel Lanzini’s superb opener in the first half and he responded to Andy Carroll’s goal by netting from the penalty spot in the 89th minute. Chelsea was awarded the spot-kick despite replays suggesting minimal contact when Ruben Loftus-Cheek was judged to have been tripped by Michail Antonio.
At the bottom of the standings, Norwich climbed out of the relegation zone after ending an 11-game winless run by beating West Bromwich Albion 1-0 through Robbie Brady’s second-half goal.
Sunderland and Newcastle, who meet in Sunday’s northeast derby, are behind Norwich, while Aston Villa is rock bottom.
Swansea’s own relegation fears were eased by Federico Fernandez clinching a 1-0 victory over Villa to move 11 points from danger.
Watford is a point ahead of Swansea after losing 2-1 to sixth-place Stoke, whose goals were provided by Jonathan Walters and Joselu. Stoke is a point behind Manchester United, which plays fourth-place Manchester City in the derby on Sunday.