A year ago, Leicester sat bottom of the Premier League destined for relegation. Now they’re 3 points clear at the top of the league with only 14 games remaining. Despite this, they’re still as far as 5/1 to win the title. While people continue to write them off, Leicester continue to edge closer to the impossible – and every neutral out there should be jumping on the Foxes bandwagon.
English football loves the underdog, just look at the FA Cup, and Leicester are certainly the underdogs in comparison to the traditional ‘Big 4’ clubs that have dominated the last 20 years. Manchester City recently announced a 3-year deal for Pep Guardiola to take over from Manuel Pellegrini as manager, a move which will surely result in titles and trophies galore for the team currently in 2nd. The hierarchies of Manchester United and Chelsea will surely react to this by spending big on top players and/or managers, while Jurgen Klopp will certainly make Liverpool title-contenders if his impressive track-record at Dortmund is anything to go by. This is why a league title in 2015 for Leicester is so important before the richest clubs use their chequebooks to break away.
Leicester aren’t the perfect underdog by any means – of course they have spent money (name me a Premier League club that hasn’t). But they have spent cleverly: N’Golo Kante and Shinji Okazaki cost a combined £12.6m – not to mention the eyebrow-raising £1m for non-league Jamie Vardy from Fleetwood in 2012. If you compare those signings, plus the free transfer of Riyad Mahrez in 2014, to the recent purchases by Newcastle of £12m each on Jonjo Shelvey and Andros Townsend, Leicester’s purchases don’t look so extravagant.
The Foxes are also made up of hard-working players who are taking their chance in England’s top flight. Some players haven’t fulfilled their potential elsewhere (Robert Huth, Mark Albrighton), some were unknown to English fans (Kante, Okazaki, Mahrez), and some have helped Leicester in their rapid rise from League One and the Championship to the top (Schmeichel, Morgan, King, Drinkwater, and of course record-breaker Jamie Vardy). There doesn’t seem to be any big egos or high maintenance players that are often seen at your Manchester Uniteds, Citys, or Chelseas. I can only speak for highlights from Match of the Day, but Leicester’s squad play for eachother, and for their fans. Add this desire with the experienced and charismatic manager Claudio Ranieri, and Leicester appear to have found a winning formula that encapsulates the best of English football.
In some ways we have forgotten what this ‘best of English football’ actually is, and we have conditioned ourselves to accept the same few teams dominating. Don’t get me wrong, to have the best players in the world playing each other every week is great to watch, but the underdog story only comes along once in a while. Since 2008, only nine teams have qualified for Europe through the league (including one-off seasons for Newcastle, 2012, and Aston Villa, 2010). So what an achievement it would be for Leicester, who are only in their second season back in the top flight, to take the title from the big guns.
Leicester are still behind inconsistent challengers Manchester City and Arsenal in the betting for title winners at 5/1. For a team that’s been consistently at the top throughout the season, and who are playing some seriously good football, those odds are almost disrespectful. The Foxes have beaten Liverpool, Chelsea, Everton and Tottenham, and have recorded draws against both Manchester clubs. After a crucial double-header against Man City and Arsenal, they only face Manchester United from the top-six in their final 12 games. For me, it’s Leicester’s title to lose.
There is the argument that Leicester’s disruption of the top 4 will affect England’s allocation of Champions League places. Poor performances in the last few years has put the Premier League’s 4 places at risk, and even the most devoted Foxes fan would struggle to build a case for Leicester getting far in that competition. But why should English teams be rewarded for European failure? Why shouldn’t little old Leicester get their chance if they earn it? If Pep Guardiola’s appointment at Manchester City, and rumours of big spending at the top of the league are anything to go by, European success will surely return to England before long. Until then, let’s show Europe that the Premier League isn’t all about underperforming ‘giants’.
At 5/1, I’ll be putting money on the Foxes to go all the way. The ‘big’ clubs will surely react to relatively poor seasons by putting their hands in their pockets to challenge Guardiola’s City over the next few years. If that happens, the gap at the top will widen and teams like Leicester (who arguably should be finishing mid-table given their resources) will probably not have the chance to lift the Premier League again. As a neutral (and one who supports a lower-league club at that), I can’t think of anything more refreshing than if Leicester would remind the billionaires in their boardrooms that it’s not just money that can win titles – you need some hard-work and belief too.