This weekend, after a thorough dismantling of a Manchester City unit boasting some of the world’s best players, Leicester City were made 2/1 joint-favourites to win the Premier League. Before a ball had been kicked, the odds were 5,000/1, which has set up one lucky punter with a shot at £25,000.
But the odds and the money don’t really matter. What matters is that Leicester City has captured the hearts and minds of a nation, and indeed, much of the footballing world. By no means am I suggesting here that this is a done deal, and there are only thirteen games to go – but if Leicester can beat Arsenal this weekend, then the ball is truly and firmly in their court.
A good friend of mine is a Leicester fan, and thus I’ve followed their progress since before they made the switch with my own beloved Fulham for Premier League status. I felt his agony as Anthony Knockaert’s penalty miss in the last minute of 2012/13 season gave Troy Deeney the opportunity to strike a counter attacking winner and knock Leicester out of the playoffs.
Indeed, we watched their imperious march to the Championship crown the season after, although I didn’t (to my discredit) agree with him that Jamie Vardy was a top player and would cut it in the top division, instead telling him that it was the magic feet of Knockaert that were destined for stardom. (In fairness, the Frenchman’s form since his return to England with Brighton suggests that one day I might be right.)
What I’m really trying to say here, is that Leicester have been a good side for a while. Even when they were rooted to the bottom of the Premiership for much of last season, they were playing good football and creating chances. When it finally began to click for them, they won 7 of their last 9 games to secure safety. The emergence of Vardy and Mahrez as top flight players had begun.
If you look at the statistics, Leicester has only lost three Premier League games since the 4th April 2015 – to Champions-elect Chelsea later that month, Arsenal in September and Liverpool in December. That is an astonishing record for any team, never mind one that lost 14 of the 20 games immediately preceding the turnaround. But the belief that this team had the ability to not only survive, but compete at the highest level, has never faltered in the eyes of many Leicester fans.
The decision to sack Pearson, crucified by many after he completed the turnaround to keep the Foxes in the Premier League, has been firmly and truly vindicated. This is still mostly his team – Morgan, Huth, Drinkwater, Albrighton, Mahrez and Vardy are just some of his signings that are leading figures in this year’s side. Ranieri has simply taken his blueprint and fine-tuned it, and the results speak for themselves. N’Golo Kanté is the fulcrum that Ranieri has added, the pivot on which the operation rests, giving the likes of Mahrez and Albrighton the creative freedom they have thrived upon.
The Moment We Believed
There’s a lot of talk about when it was that Leicester looked like they could genuinely win the title. Mahrez’s goal against Manchester City, for many people, was the moment Leicester went from rank outsiders to world-beaters. Personally, the moment when Leicester transformed from chrysalis to butterfly in my eyes was in this mind-bogglingly intricate piece of passing play against Liverpool.
For a team who have exceptionally low pass completion and possession statistics, this was the point at which their versatility was revealed, and ability to mix up their way of playing demonstrated most ably. The long ball over the top to Vardy has been well documented and did lay on a goal in the same game, but Leicester’s confidence both with and without the ball has been a key element to their season and this eloquence and one-touch movement was the clearest showcase of their technical ability all year.
By no means is this season over and there are thirteen tricky games to go yet for Leicester – no game is a guarantee at this stage of the season in the Premier League. If they can maintain their composure and nerve, and keep believing it’s possible, then it would be to the celebration of football fans across the country – an underdog story in the highest sense. But perhaps an assimilation of popular culture would sum this up best:
“And the world will be better for this
That one team scorned and covered with scars
Still strove with their last ounce of courage
To fight the unbeatable foe, to reach the unreachable star.”
Come on Leicester.