The Leicester City fairy-tale rolls on. Everyone said that they’d fade away, that Vardy or Mahrez would get injured, that the squad’s accumulative lack of experience would ultimately cost them England’s greatest footballing achievement. Yet none of these potentially derailing scenarios have come to fruition, and the Foxes sit atop of the pile, five points clear of Tottenham with just seven game weeks remaining. If they do go on and claim the club’s first Premier League title, there is no question that it would be regarded as the greatest footballing story ever known.
Exactly a year to the day, the Leicestershire side were bottom of the Premier League, six points adrift from safety and set for a return to English football’s second tier. However, a remarkable run of seven victories in their remaining nine games saw them comfortably steer clear of the dreaded drop to finish a credible fourteenth. Nigel Pearson, despite his somewhat questionable demeanour in the public eye, did a sterling job. It wasn’t enough to save him, however, and renowned Italian ‘tinker man’ Claudio Ranieri was entrusted with the formidable task of keeping the Foxes in the top tier.
Pre-season odds of 5000-1 to become champions reflected the widely thought belief that Leicester would again struggle, and even the few die-hard Leicester supporters who placed small sums on their beloved side to lift the title could not have possibly believed that they are on the verge of a handsome payday. Yet here we are, eight months later, with Leicester on the brink of the unthinkable.
The meteoric rise of Jamie Vardy from non-league to a Premier league record holder has been the story of the season, with even those in the glamorous film studios of Hollywood taking notice. A feature-length film is set to be made charting Vardy’s success, with his surreal season set to end in France, representing England in the upcoming European Championships. As well as Vardy, it is another relatively unknown player who has made Leicester’s unlikely season possible. Algerian Riyad Mahrez had played in England for two years before this fantastic campaign. Prior to the 15/16 season, Mahrez had just 7 goals in over 50 games for the club. This year, he has 16 goals and 11 assists and is being linked with a move to European giants Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Whereas Vardy and Mahrez have undoubtedly been Leicester’s two greatest performers this year, it is the work of the entire squad that has propelled them to the top. There are no egos such as Cristiano Ronaldo amongst this group of players. Not one considers himself too big for the club, and the unity between them is evident and a breath of fresh air.
It is not just the players that deserve credit however. Claudio Ranieri, one of the most experienced managers in the world of football, is on the verge of what would be his finest footballing achievement. The Italian, who has managed 16 clubs across Europe without one single league title, was considered a risk when he was appointed, with pundits and fans reacting in a mixed fashion. Yet Ranieri has proved many wrong with his heroics, playing an attractive brand of football as well as being defensively solid.
Ranieri has handled himself brilliantly, unnervingly composed in face of pressure created by the media, and managing to temper expectations by creating self-confidence amongst the players and a conviction in the team’s abilities. He knows when to put his arm over the shoulder and when to shout, proving himself both technically and psychologically. As a neutral, you can’t help but feel emotionally disposed towards him. If Ranieri goes on to lead Leicester to the title it’ll surely be the greatest managerial feat in modern football.
Even if Leicester do not go on and win the title, it has been an incredible journey. They are all but guaranteed a place in next season’s leading European competition, and if you told Leicester fans at the start of this season that the likes of Lionel Messi, Luis Suarez or Neymar could be gracing the turf of the King Power come the 16/17 campaign, they’d never have believed you. From a business perspective, this season has propelled the club’s image into the top echelons of the footballing world, with supporters globally enthralled by the unlikely underdog story and buying into the ‘brand’ that Leicester City have become.
It is very important to stress that the title is far from won. Ranieri’s men still have a considerable amount of work to do before they can be crowned champions. Leicester must face four teams currently in the top 10, as well as Sunderland and Swansea who are scrapping for their lives at the foot of the table. An away day at Old Trafford will be tough, and can you imagine the story if, on the final day, Leicester face reigning champions Chelsea at Stamford Bridge needing three points for the title? What greater incentive would Ranieri, sacked as Chelsea manager in 2004, have to win the championship at his former club in front of the Russian oligarch that brutally axed him as manager of the London club?
Each win sees an influx of belief and a ramping up of the pressure, but they have proved they can cope thus far. They have coped with the pressure well to this point, and with their closest rivals facing some tricky upcoming fixtures, Leicester will ultimately cross the line victorious. Whisper it quietly, but Leicester City are going to win the Premier League.