On this evidence West Ham would not look out of place in the Champions League next season. Clinical and composed, the only time they look like freezing is when they have a 3-0 lead.
This is a team playing at the point of maximum expression and although West Ham’s squad have been stretched to breaking point, it is going to take something special to knock them off course after they regained fourth place from Chelsea thanks to a deserved win over Leicester.
David Moyes, performing miracles with limited resources, could not have been happier after his dogged side held off an unlikely fightback from Leicester. Although West Ham lost two of their most important players to injury last week, once again they summoned tremendous resilience. In midfield Mark Noble, making his 400th appearance for the club, used his experience to lessen the impact of Declan Rice’s knee injury, laying the foundations for Jesse Lingard to produce another inspirational display with the hamstrung Michail Antonio missing up front.
Lingard, a revelation since joining on loan from Manchester United in January, scored twice in the first half to bring his tally to eight goals in nine games. Leicester were powerless to resist his clever movement and expert finishing. Brendan Rodgers, who dropped James Maddison, Ayoze Pérez and Hamza Choudhury after the trio breached Covid-19 protocols, has cause for concern before next weekend’s FA Cup semi-final against Southampton.
Although Kelechi Iheanacho almost inspired an incredible turnaround, Leicester’s hold on third place looks increasingly uncertain. They are a point above West Ham, with Chelsea only two behind, and are in danger of letting a top-four finish slip from their grasp for the second successive season.
Forget the late drama: Leicester were dreadful for the first 70 minutes, completely failing to cope with West Ham’s revamped front three. Moyes’s side, playing without a conventional striker, were fine without Antonio as their focal point. Lingard was outstanding again, linking expertly with Pablo Fornals and Jarrod Bowen, who laid on an assist before scoring the game’s decisive goal.
West Ham had to build patiently without Antonio occupying defenders. They needed individual flair to open up a tight game and Arthur Masuaku was happy to oblige, attacking from left wing-back and testing Leicester with teasing deliveries. Direct and skilful, Masuaku sent one cross just past Bowen and he was involved in the opening goal after 29 minutes, brilliantly beating Ricardo Pereira before almost finding Fornals at the far post.
Unnerved by Masuaku’s change of pace, Leicester were slow to organise as Vladimir Coufal collected possession on the right. The Czech wing-back had time to cut the ball back to the edge of the area for Lingard, whose right-footed finish bounced into the ground and past the unsighted Kasper Schmeichel.
Forced to chase an equaliser, Leicester stepped out and began to leave space behind their back three. It suited West Ham perfectly and they should have scored again when Coufal burst through on the right, only to dither with Fornals unmarked.
No matter. Just before the interval Issa Diop brought the ball out from the back before lifting another pass down the right. This time Bowen, curving his run to beat the offside trap, raced through and drew Schmeichel before rolling the ball across to Lingard for a simple finish.
Leicester were stunned. Pallid with the ball, they barely threatened after Iheanacho sent an early chance wide after a mistake by Aaron Cresswell.
Jamie Vardy, who has scored once since 20 December, toiled up front and Leicester found themselves overwhelmed in midfield, where Wilfried Ndidi and Youri Tielemans struggled to compete with Noble and Tomas Soucek.
Although Rodgers reacted at half-time, replacing Daniel Amartey with Luke Thomas, the pattern remained the same. After 48 minutes Iheanacho conceded possession, allowing West Ham to attack again down the left. The move progressed quickly, Masuaku and Lingard combining before a deft final pass from Soucek to Bowen, who adjusted his feet before jabbing a low finish past Schmeichel.
West Ham were rampant, chasing a fourth. Lingard, impressing in front of the England manager, Gareth Southgate, crossed for Diop to head past Schmeichel. But when VAR intervened, ruling Diop offside, Leicester still had hope. West Ham, who almost blew a 3-0 lead for the second consecutive game when they beat Wolves last week, began to tire and Leicester pulled one back when Iheanacho punished an error from Masuaku with a ferocious drive from 20 yards.
Livid with that lapse, Moyes watched the game change as Noble and Cresswell limped off. Lukasz Fabianski denied Pereira and Leicester set up a frantic finish when Iheanacho scored again, converting Marc Albrighton’s cross in the first of six added minutes.
It was closer than it should have been. In the end, though, the prospect of Champions League football at the London Stadium was closer than ever before.