(Recasts with sacking of Pellegrini)
LONDON, Dec 28 (Reuters) - West Ham United sacked Manuel Pellegrini after a dismal 2-1 home defeat by Leicester City which relaunched the Foxes’ distant pursuit of Premier League leaders Liverpool on Saturday.
Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers made nine changes from the side that lost 4-0 at home to Liverpool less than 48 hours earlier, their second consecutive defeat, but goals by Kelechi Iheanacho and Demarai Gray saw them close the gap to 10 points.
Defeat meant West Ham have won only twice in their last 13 league games and Pellegrini’s 18-month tenure was brought to a close with the announcement of his dismissal by the club coming around an hour after the final whistle at the London Stadium.
The ease with which a much-changed Leicester side won was worrying as West Ham remained one point and one place above the relegation zone after being in top four earlier this season.
Gray had an early penalty saved by West Ham’s returning keeper Lukasz Fabianski but Iheanacho headed Leicester into a deserved lead in the 40th minute.
Summer signing Pablo Fornals levelled but West Ham lacked belief and Leicester regained the lead in the 56th minute when Gray finished off a superb counter-attack.
Second-placed Leicester, without the Premier League’s top striker Jamie Vardy who was excused duty after becoming a father for the third time, could have won by a bigger margin as they moved four points clear of Manchester City.
After shipping seven goals in defeats by City and Liverpool, Leicester look back on track, despite having played two more games than the European champions.
Rodgers’ decision to rotate his squad looked to be a gamble but, instead, it showed the depth of his squad with Gray one of the players to shine, having been given a rare starting slot.
“We controlled the game, put out a fresh team but it paid off,” Gray, whose penalty was saved by Fabianski, said.
“If you’re not playing so much you have to try and stamp your mark and get yourself in the team. It just shows the quality and depth we’ve got in the team.”
West Ham made seven changes from the side that lost at Crystal Palace on Boxing Day, but unlike Leicester’s stand-ins, they produced a meek performance in front of an apathetic crowd.
The return of Fabianski after missing 11 league games with injury was a boost for the hosts but he had a mixed start.
First, he clattered into Iheanacho to concede a penalty but redeemed himself by saving Gray’s spot kick.
The let-off did not ignite the home side and they fell behind when James Justin’s deep cross was kept in play by Ayoze Perez and Iheanacho nodded in from close range.
Hundreds of West Ham fans went for an early halftime soother and missed the sweeping move that ended with Felipe Anderson squaring for Fornals to slot home.
That was as good as it got for the hosts. In the 56th minute, Leicester sprung out of defence, Perez sliced through West Ham’s midfield and played the perfect pass for Gray to guide his shot past Fabianski.
Asked about his future afterwards, Pellegrini told reporters: “I cannot answer that question. I hope that this team will recover the performances we had at the beginning of the season.” Shortly afterwards, though, West Ham issued a statement confirming that the 66-year-old had been sacked. (Reporting by Martyn Herman; Editing by Ken Ferris and Ian Chadband)
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