This ‘soap opera’ of a Premier League Season thus far continues to enthral, surprise and entertain us with each week. The main storyline being Leicester City’s unexpected title tilt. With unpredictable results providing intriguing plot twists, this season is actually playing out more like a ‘Telenovela’. It is highly unlikely that we shall get another campaign as schizophrenic as we have so far witnessed again anytime soon.
Each week, we tune in expecting them to fall out of the frame, allowing a more familiar played out scenario to take charge, one that though not as exciting, we feel more accustomed to watching.
Their contributions in deconstructing our comfort zone of a top four that we already thought we knew before a ball was kicked this season, has kept us on the edge of our seats. How seriously though are Leicester to be taken? Can they win the League?
For the betting man, building an accumulator has become rocket science when coming across a game featuring the Foxes, and the same can be said for the Champions, Chelsea. The Champions have not been able to replicate the hard work they put into gaining the title and this has now come at the expense of Jose Mourinho’s job. This has left the title race wide open, and Leicester are staking as good a claim as any to filling the spot they have vacated in the fight at the top of the table. Their throwback brand of entertaining direct ballplay partnered with a determination to not accept defeat, has been portrayed best by two players in the front running for player of the season, England International Jamie Vardy and before this season the little known Algerian International, Riyad Mahrez, a steal at £400,000. Vardy has broke the record for scoring in consecutive Premier League games en route to having 15 goals, where he is tied with Everton’s Romelo Lukaku at the top of the scoring charts. Mahrez is not far behind with 13.
I myself, for anyone who read Part 1 of my season preview was cautious of Leicester this term, expecting them to possibly struggle. This included being critical of Ranieri, who is making me currently eat crow. England legend and former Leicester striker Gary Lineker classified the appointment of Ranieri in the summer as ‘uninspiring’, something that the Leicester fans on social media have not let him forget as the season has progressed.
If you had told Leicester fans that in mid-January, after having played 22 League games that the nadir of their season would be a 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal and an away defeat to Liverpool by the odd goal, then they would have bitten your arm off quicker than you can say King Power.
Ranieri returned to English football with his pseudonym the ‘Tinkerman’ still largely weighing on him, drawn from his relentless changing of starting line-ups in the past. This season though he has kept a more settled line up and the team have showed great understanding on the pitch because of this. Nine players have featured in at least 20 of their 22 League games, including inspired signing N’Golo Kante whom has been a driving force in central midfield. Such is Kante’s form, the solid and experienced Swiss international Captain Gokhan Inler has been limited to just five League appearances. This is a player you thought would be a certainty for the starting line up when the Foxes acquired him.
The aforementioned defeat to Liverpool on Boxing Day was the start of a period in which Leicester only gained victory in one of their last five League games. However, with Arsenal drawing consecutive games away at Liverpool, and then at Stoke on Sunday and because of the points Leicester had accumulated beforehand, they are only behind Arsenal at the top of the table by goal difference. Therefore they have to be taken very seriously. After Manchester City’s home draw with Everton last Wednesday, this seemed more of a concern
to Arsenal’s title charge. The fact Leicester had won at Tottenham, seemed to be completely overlooked and this was wrong. This was a Spurs side who have become extremely difficult to breach; before that game they had only lost one of their previous nineteen league games (at home to Newcastle on the 13th of December).
Saturday’s draw for Leicester away at Aston Villa could have been so different if Mahrez had not missed his second penalty of the season. He had previous missed in the goalless draw at home with Bournemouth. Mahrez has now been stripped of penalty taking duties as further misses could prove costly come season’s end.
After the Villa game Ranieri told BBC Sport, “We achieved 39 points from the first half of the season and we want to improve. Our next target is 40 more points from the second half. I know it is very difficult and ambitious but why not?” Indeed Leicester’s next set of fixtures may just define the season. They entertain Stoke and Liverpool, before going away to Manchester City and Arsenal. As good as they have been, they may not win any of these games. Leicester also finish the season away to Manchester United, home to Everton, and away to Chelsea. For this reason, I think the title may be just too much for them, nevertheless they are certainly to be taken seriously despite the fact that I believe the Champions will be one of Manchester City or Arsenal.
An injury to Mahrez or Vardy for a decent amount of games could change their season enough to disrupt the title push. Even with them fit, in the tight games like the ones they have drawn in this recent period, they may lack the individual quality to take them over the edge, if they are not invigorated by their two main men. Champions League football though is a distinct possibility and achieving that would still be drastically beyond any Leicester fans’ wildest dreams. With the extra money they would receive if they were to get through next season to the Group stages, plus with Ranieri’s football connections, who knows who they could bring in and where they could get to. One thing is for sure they have been a breath of fresh air and long may it continue. Credit must go to Ranieri for not falling into his old ways of consistently changing lineups and formations and for continuously motivating his group whom, despite falling behind on numerous occasions, never feel like they are beaten. Unless you do not care for fairytales, this a team that everyone should be rooting for.