London - The wealth of elite clubs and financial restrictions on
upstarts were thought to be locking in the established order in English soccer
and suppressing ambition.
Just gate-crashing the Premier League's top-four to gain access to
Champions League riches seemed an impossible feat for aspirational sides.
But a kaleidoscope has shaken the world's richest football
competition in a season, defying not only the bookmakers but logic as well.
After 25 games it still seems unfathomable to have to delve into
the lower reaches of the standings to find Chelsea in 13th place from where the
defending champions are struggling to rise.
But it is the continued presence of Leicester at the summit to be
cherished. With predictable leaders in Spain, Germany and France, Leicester is
reinforcing the Premier League's status as the world's most engrossing and
competitive domestic competition.
Leicester responds to each prediction that its bubble will burst
by producing results like Saturday: Stunning Manchester City 3-1 and sending
the 2012 and 2014 champions sliding to fourth.
Leicester winning the top flight for the first time in May would
be the greatest title triumph in English football history. The Foxes started
the season as 5,000-1 title no-hopers but are now 7-4 favourites with some
"It's either this year or never," manager Claudio
Ranieri has told his players.
Adding to the state of flux in England is Tottenham occupying
second place five points behind Leicester — its highest position at this stage
of the season for 31 years. Unlike Leicester, the north London club has been
champion of England, though only in 1951 and 1961.
There has been a surprise champion before from the east Midlands.
Nottingham Forest was promoted to the top flight and instantly won the 1978
title. But that was in an era when the disparities are not as vast as
With a team that cost around $30 million, Leicester beat a Man
City line-up on Saturday that cost more than 10 times that to assemble.
Leicester generated around $150 million in revenue last season while City made
more than $500 million.
The richest team in England is Manchester United. Despite vast
spending on players and a 2014-15 turnover of around $580 million, United is
fifth in the standings, a dozen points behind Leicester with 13 games to go.
At this stage last season Leicester was rock bottom. Only in April
did Leicester start its rise out of the relegation zone, although manager Nigel
Pearson was still fired and the less temperamental Ranieri was brought in.
The brains behind the moulding of the team is Steve Walsh, the
former Leicester player turned head of recruitment and assistant manager, who
unearthed gems like Jamie Vardy.
The striker was a 1-million-pound gamble when he was plucky from
non-league obscurity in 2012. Vardy has proved to be a bargain buy with a
league-leading 18 goals. Riyad Mahrez has shared the plaudits as the Algeria
midfielder has unsettled defences with his searing pace while also contributing
14 league goals.
But it's an all-round team effort, exemplified by a
Barcelona-esque slick passing sequence in the 2-0 win over Liverpool last week.
The defensive midfield shield, Danny Drinkwater, and goalkeeper Kasper
Schmeichel have been integral to Leicester conceding only twice in seven league
All-round energy and pace in the central England team has seen teams
as mighty as Man City crumble.
"Everyone feels they are participating, so playing badly
means betraying the others," Ranieri told Italian newspaper Corriere della
Sera in a weekend interview.
"I never once had to tell someone off for being lazy."
Leicester's Thai owners were dismissed as barmy for hiring Ranieri
in July. The Italian had been away from the Premier League for 11 years since
being jettisoned by Chelsea to make way for Jose Mourinho. And he had been out
of work for more than a year after being fired by Greece during a woeful start
by a top-ranked team in the easiest-ever European Championship qualifying
But from being a figure of fun and favourite to be sacked this
season, Ranieri is flavour of the month again.
How has he achieved it?
One of the first tasks for the manager known at Chelsea as the
"Tinkerman" for his constant changes to the line-up was winning over
wary Leicester players.
"I realized they were afraid of Italian tactical
approaches," Ranieri recalled.
"So I told the players that I trusted them and would speak
very little of tactics. It was important to me that they all ran hard."
Beat third-place Arsenal on Sunday and Leicester will be closer to
handing Ranieri the most satisfying end to the season in May: Lifting the trophy
at his former Chelsea home.
"I always tell my players to find the fire within
themselves," Ranieri said. "A chance like this will never come round
again. Seek that fire, don't be ashamed of it."
Who will be ashamed?
Illustrious clubs beaten to the trophy by a team on a
comparatively minuscule budget. And pundits who tipped Leicester for the drop
and Ranieri for the sack.