But in case some of you may have forgotten, Leicester City remain on course to be Champions of England in May.
I will happily admit that I predicted the Foxes would be relegated before a ball was kicked back in August. I was unconvinced that Claudio Ranieri was the right man to return to the Premier League after 12 years away. I had probably placed too much emphasis on his struggles with Greece rather than his strong efforts at Juventus, Roma and Monaco, finishing second with each of those teams.
But his charisma won over the Leicester dressing room at the start and his Italian tactical nous has cemented that once the initial impression had worn off. Nor was I convinced that Leicester’s brilliant finish to last season as they garnered 22 points from their final nine games would be anything but a heroic two-month spell. How gloriously wrong I have been on both counts.
Today, Leicester sit two points clear of both Arsenal and Tottenham with just 12 games to play. It promises to be one of the most thrilling and unexpected title races for years. All three sides have advantages and weaknesses and it is the flaws that arguably make the competition more compelling. But this blog is about Leicester and their glorious thrill ride up until this point. Tomorrow they entertain Norwich City and I will be at the King Power Stadium to see how they resume after their heart-breaking injury-time loss at Arsenal last time out.
On paper, the Foxes probably could not have picked a more favourable fixture. Norwich have only taken eight points out of a possible 39 on their travels this season. The Canaries have gathered just one point and conceded 16 goals in their last six games and are only outside of the bottom three on goal difference. It looks simple – win and then relax while Tottenham and Arsenal play on Sunday to reduce the deficit. But Leicester will be huge favourites and that is at odds with the rest of the season.
Everyone has waited for the bubble to burst but they have won at Tottenham and Manchester City and beaten Chelsea and Liverpool at home to continue to defy logic. However, this is where things change. Ranieri sensibly gave his players a week off after the game at Arsenal to recharge their batteries for the run-in. But during that downtime, will players have allowed themselves to dream about might happen? Does the mentality change when there is suddenly something to lose?
The next three weeks before the international break are defining for Leicester’s season. Norwich at home, West Brom at home, Watford away, Newcastle home, Crystal Palace away. Five teams situated between ninth and 18th in the Premier League, and no real terror amongst them. In years gone by, title contenders would have looked at that set of games and anticipated a haul of 12, 13 or 15 points as their challenge motored into top gear. Something similar for Ranieri’s men would be superb – and would certainly ensure they are top of the table when action resumes after Easter. But this is the Premier League and a crazy year when predicting results and outcomes has often been futile. Someone could argue with justification that Leicester might hit the wall and not win any of those matches.
One thing that must change though is people’s perception. They may be top of the pile, but it’s obvious that Leicester have not developed the fear factor or reputation their football has deserved. Swansea were swept aside 3-0 at home in December and the club decided it was the last straw for Garry Monk. That wasn’t the case when the Swans lost 5-0 at home to Chelsea last season. Alan Shearer publicly castigated Newcastle on Match of the Day for a 3-0 home drubbing by the Foxes in November – again something that would not have happened if one of the ‘Big Boys’ had been responsible.
Wherever they finish on May 15, Leicester will have provided a special story for the season. But their players must realise they could go down in history as England’s most unlikely Champions. Jamie Vardy has emerged from nowhere to become the top scorer in the division and an overnight sensation. Suddenly he is the player to whom every footballer at whatever level can aspire.
If Vardy can rise up from non-league football at Stocksbridge Park Steels, then there is hope for anyone with a mix of desire ad ability. Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante were plucked from obscurity in French football. Now they are on course to be in the Team of the Season in the Premier League – one an outstandingly skilful winger, the other a tenacious central midfielder. The list goes on of unlikely lads – captain and centre half Wes Morgan, midfielder Danny Drinkwater, Aston Villa reject Marc Albrighton.
The truth is Leicester don’t need to be Barcelona or Bayern Munich to win this year’s Premier League title. If Ranieri and Co. remain true to their values, they simply need to be better than or equal to the rest.
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