LONDON. — IT’s the million-dollar question: can Leicester City win the English Premier League soccer title?
WHY ARE LEICESTER SO GOOD?
When was the last time you saw players from Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea or Liverpool having a right laugh? It doesn’t happen.
When was the last time you saw Louis van Gaal enjoying himself other than when he’s baiting reporters or generally trying to win the title of the World’s Rudest Man?
Leicester have good players, make no mistake, but they are also playing a brand of sunshine football that might just overcome all the astonishing odds.
They are playing with smiles on their faces.
You can see they enjoy playing alongside each other. At the helm is Claudio Ranieri, the loveable Italian who has charm and a little bit of madness combined in an intoxicating mixture.
Leicester’s players don’t shuffle past the press with headphones on pretending they really have better things to do. There’s a spirit about these Leicester lads and it’s starting to pay massive dividends.
WHAT HAS CHANGED SINCE LAST SEASON?
Not as much as people think, actually. Yes, they were bottom at Christmas and seemingly without a hope but their run of form since the turn of last year was truly astonishing.
They had a blistering run from the new year onwards to pull off the unlikeliest escapes. It was as if Santa had given them a collective belief that they really were good enough to compete at the top level.
From that point on they were virtually unbeatable and have just taken that into the new season.
Leicester are a classic example of the whole being greater than the sum of its parts. Quite simply, it works.
HOW MUCH IS DOWN TO RANIERI?
You know something? Ranieri has succeeded by NOT doing the one things he had become famous for — TINKERING!
The Italian became known as the Tinkerman for chopping and changing things and, with hindsight, that could have been the worst thing he could have done.
He deserves immense credit for recognising there might be something special going on and resisting any urge to stamp his own mark on it.
Previous boss Nigel Pearson’s part in all this should not be underestimated and, privately, he must be like a bear with a sore head at how his tenure came to an end. Pearson has every right to be gnashing his teeth that off-the-field nonsense and a total lack of judgement have cost him this moment in the sunshine. But he does deserve massive credit and it will be recognised in that he will land another job. For God’s sake count to 10 when that comes around, Nigel.
WILL IT BE HARD TO KEEP THEIR BEST PLAYERS?
Absolutely. There’s not any financial pressure on the club because the Thai owners are mega-wealthy. Also, there’s not the footballing pressure that there might have been, because the Champions League is starting to look a certainty.
Who would have thought it? Manchester United make a move for Fred Bloggs from Leicester and he turns down the move because he’s got Champions League football with the Foxes!
But, of course, the really big-hitters at home and abroad will be banging down the doors trying to get their hands on some of Leicester’s stars.
It looks like they can hold on to Jamie Vardy because of his age and their bid to tie him down to a lucrative new deal. The likes of Riyad Mahrez might be more difficult, but there’s more important things to worry about right now.
SO CAN LEICESTER WIN THE LEAGUE?
Bookies rarely get it wrong. All the leading firms now have the Foxes as favourites to finish at the front. It’s like the Grand National — no wonder it’s capturing the imagination of people who normally don’t care too much about football.
This is Foinavon with balls — the rank outsider gamely clearing the jumps and heading for the line while the rest of the field gets in a tangle.
Ranieri is holding on to the reins as his dark horses try to put even more distance between themselves and the English Premier League’s thoroughbreds.
The race isn’t over and there are plenty of hurdles to come but can Leicester keep on their feet and finish first past the post? You bet they can… just ask the bookies.
THE ARMITAGE VERDICT
You’d better believe it — Leicester could now strike a mortal blow for the little guys. And if the Fearless Foxes do go on to win the English Premier League title, you can draw a ring around the date Saturday, February 6.
That was when everyone watching this romantic saga stepped back and gasped “These guys really can do it!”
Beating rivals Manchester City 3-1 in their own backyard represented a seismic shift compared to anything that had happened before.
That was the moment even City fans trudged away from the ground groaning that they really hadn’t expected that.
Of ALL the results so far this season, the one from the Etihad truly is the one that has stunned football.
Even the bookies finally threw up their arms, reached for their marker pens and admitted that now they had no choice other than to make Leicester favourites to finish top dogs.
Up to now even those willing Claudio Ranieri’s men on have had nagging doubts about whether they really could do it.
Surely a three-game spell of Liverpool at home followed by two trips to fellow title chasers City and Arsenal would see them sent home having had their ears clipped? They saw off Liverpool then had the audacity to take the lead at City after just three minutes. In the end they won it at a stroll and the only point City fans tried to hang on to was jeering Jamie Vardy when he missed a chance.
The sight of Leicester’s wiry scamp running away with a mischievous grin and signalling “three-nil” with his hands just about says it all. The Foxes ARE the real deal.
And with their last game of the season happening to be at Stamford Bridge, Roman Abramovich’s face would be a picture should he have to witness Ranieri lifting the trophy. — The Daily Star.