WHY Leicester City need to Win
Team Sport is about the underdog. They are celebrated as much as the serial winners. When it comes to individuals, it’s the highly accomplished, the Roger Federers and the Usain Bolts, but when it’s a team, you will always remember the 3-0 down comeback of Liverpool against AC Milan in the UEFA Champions league final of 2005 as the stuff of legends.
This could be a result of team sports having a larger gulf of quality, talent and budgets rather than individuals, and also more avenues to face each other. On Sunday, when Leicester City take on Manchester United, they have a chance to win the English Premier league title, and make history as the greatest underdog story in all of football, and arguably in the history of sport.
Leicester City, or 'the Foxes' as they are known, began this season as firm favourites for relegation with 3:1 odds and a highly unlikely 5000:1 odds to claim the title. With 7 points clear of the second placed team, Tottenham Hotspur and 3 games to go, you could say that they are finally now favourites, being only 3 meagre points away from mathematically winning the league. And yet, there's always a doubt lingering that the dream could horribly, sickeningly topple. Had it been any other team, the media would have christened them champions weeks ago, but here we are, with it being as likely to hear chants of "We're staying in the league," along with the "We're going to win the league," at the King Power stadium in Leicester.
This incredible season of theirs has been attributed to various 'reasons.' The fact that they have played fewer games than the other title contenders, being knocked out early from the other cups, and not participating in the coveted UEFA Champions league (of which they will be a part of next season). Fewer injuries, as well as watching the rest of the Big Four of Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal and (last season's champions) Chelsea underdeliver with inconsistent displays. With a Premier League season spread over 38 games, Leicester have shown that they can consistently perform in big games, as well as notch up several routine 1-0 victories.
But Leicester, coached by the affable godfather of football, Claudio Ranieri have succeeded in being more than just lucky. They don't play football that conforms to conventional standards of beauty, but instead play a highly intense counterattacking style preferring to let their opponents keep the ball, and then attack at pace to nick a goal. Their defense led by Morgan and Huth has been solid. And they have had the opportunity to witness the rise of Jamie Vardy: the man, the myth and the legend.
From playing non league football a few seasons ago to leading the line at Leicester, breaking records for most games continuously scored, scoring 22 blistering goals, to also being described as a bit of a c*nt, Jamie Vardy has done it all. Partnering with the creative midfielder Riyad Mahrez who was voted the PFA player of the season, they have had a hand in 56 of the 63 goals scored with either a goal or an assist. The statistics are staggering, but that is one facet of Leicester that needs to be celebrated as a true success. Their scouting has been on point, and it has been done keeping player statistics in mind. N'Golo Kanté had incredible statistics for regaining possession, though he played for SM Caen, a relatively lesser known side in the French Ligue 1. Riyad Mahrez had unbelievable statistics of being able to dribble successfully past players, and Vardy had the goals. But it would be poor reporting, to attribute only these three players for Leicester's stellar (almost) success. Their squad all seem to perform wonderfully well in their positions, and after having watched several games, you can see than their team is a machine where the pieces just seem to click. From Albrighton's pace on the left wing, to their full backs of Fuchs and Simpson to the ever reliable defensive pairing of Morgan and Huth. Drinkwater, Okazaki and last weekend's hero Ulloa, play with a confidence that comes from being allowed to play week in and week out, but also the secret that Leicester have acquired over the last season: Belief.
Belief in the system, belief that they are good enough to play their style of football, and now finally, the belief that they can win the league. Claudio Ranieri's men seem to all fit in with the Leicester system, no singular super stars, all a cog in the wheel of a side on its path to making Premier League history. Never has a side below the top 4 won the league, and here is a side that barely survived relegation last season, was promoted to the league only two season before, threatening to make a Hollywood style miracle.
A squad assembled at 1/10th the price of current champions Chelsea, seems disparate to the style of today’s football. TV broadcasting rights and endorsements that bring in hundreds of millions to the clubs have polluted the game by rigging it in the favour of richer clubs, who almost invariably have rich sugardaddy owners. The meteoric rise of middling Manchester City to title contenders in a short span, with the backing of Abu Dhabi royal owners is a case in point. Leicester prove that there is another path. And as Juan Mata described earlier in the week, that Premier League and professional footballers live in a bubble with the 'obscene' amounts of money they earn, Leicester put the team first, before the player.
As Claudio Ranieri's side takes on the comically villainous Louis Van Gaal's Manchester United this weekend, the entire footballing world collectively holds its breath, to see if they can be crowded champions with 2 games to spare. Manchester United, once serial winners under the remarkable individual, Sir Alex Ferguson have shown how tenuous modern football can be with their immediate drop in form once Sir Alex retired. Should Leicester win against them, they would receive a guard of honour at their next game against Chelsea, a side that Ranieri once coached and was fired from by their Russian Billionaire owner Roman Abramovich for reasons that he would never lead a title winning side.
The story so far almost seems too perfect. With next season's uncertainties, rigours of playing Champions league football for the first time, and millions more expected to be spent by Pep Guardiola's Manchester City, Chelsea and the rest of the big Premier League sides, Leicester have one opportunity at glory. They may be unable to keep their current set of players, with other big sides looming in like sharks to sign them with fatter paychecks, this feat may never again be achieved in football. They would be the new yardstick in sporting underdog history, should they sieze this opportunity.
While second placed Tottenham, with their attractive attacking football and youthful side winning the league would be remarkable in its own way. Leicester City however, with all their reasons and luck framed only in the background, mostly forgotten, with the achievement of winning the title firmly in focus, find that for the sake of aspiring to higher ideals, for the sake of sport, that the footballing heart beats for them.