Premier League history awaits Leicester with Manchester United win
With 10 games left last season, Leicester City sat bottom of the Premier League
Leicester City could complete the most improbable sporting achievement in modern history, if they beat Manchester United on Sunday to become English champions for the first time. Before the season started, bookmakers were offering an incredible 5,000/1 for the Foxes to win the Premier League.
With 10 games left last season, Leicester City sat bottom of the Premier League. Nigel Pearson, who was the manager until the summer, summoned up an incredible response to keep Leicester above the relegation zone. He was replaced by veteran Ranieri in July who was previously Chelsea manager before Roman Abramovich appointed Jose Mourinho.
When in Italy, Mourinho would mock Ranieri for his lack of achievements in England, and the standard of his English. The Italian coach picked up the nickname, “Tinkerman,” as a result of his tactical changes when manager at Stamford Bridge. His reputation, generally, wasn't high outside of football circles – his last job, as Greek national team coach, ended after four games, including one defeat to the Faroe Islands.
Through a mix of clever tactics, which is focused around good defensive discipline and quick counterattacks, Ranieri has done the unthinkable in toppling Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and United. Last year, according to Bloomberg, Leicester paid around 50 million to their players – one quarter of the budget at Chelsea. Exact numbers of budget differences will be released in the year to come, but it's fair to say the Foxes have achieved this on a shoestring, by EPL standards.
Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, the club's Thai owner, paid a little to take the club from Milan Mandaric in 2014. Srivaddhanaprabha has made most of his money from duty-free, and now sits on a potential fortune at Leicester who will qualify for next season's Champions League as an automatic pot-one club.
Sharp moves in the transfer market
A clever manager in Ranieri, who understands the psychology of players, has been coupled with outstanding success in the usually-unpredictable transfer market. Steve Walsh is Leicester's Head of Recruitment and was given the seal of approval when famous fan Gary Lineker praised his work. Elsewhere, Ben Wrigglesworth, another scout, joined Arsenal last year, while Rob McKenzie, Head of Technical Scouting, was plucked away by Tottenham.
The work of this trio, plus a number of others behind the scenes, allowed Leicester to play the transfer market to their advantage. The Foxes understood that by using analytics and statistics, they could hone in one the kind of player they were looking for, while other Premier League sides threw endless pots of cash around the country.
And Algerian Riyad Mahrez was one of those success tales. The PFA Player of the Year – the first African player to be given the crown – has been a remarkable signing for the club. Mahrez encapsulates the Leicester story more then most – he was playing fourth division football at the age of 19 in the suburbs of Paris. French clubs passed up on the chance to bring him into their academy. Even when French giants Marseille were offered him, they turned it down.
It's been reported that Walsh found Mahrez by accident, whilst on another scouting trip. If he did, the Leicester scouting guru will be looking to make more blunders in the future. Mahrez, 25, has scored 25 Premier League goals this season and has been the creative hub of the side. Stats show the Algerian is one of the best dribblers and goal-creators in the Premier League.
The man Mahrez is finding with those deft passes is Jamie Vardy, another incredible story that has prompted suggestions of a Hollywood movie about his career. The 29-year-old has previously played for Fleetwood Town and Halifax, but has sensationally found a hot streak of form in the EPL, scoring 22 goals this season. Such form has taken him into the England squad, where he scored against Germany in the recent friendly win. He'll almost certainly now be a member of England's Euro 2016 squad.
Transfers like Christian Fuchs, an Austrian left-back who signed from Schalke, and N'Golo Kante have been equally impressive. Despite experiencing Champions League football in Germany, Fuchs still can't quite believe what Leicester City are ready to achieve this season. "Actually, I can't really grasp it that we have the chance to win the title," he said. "But we still need that one win. Our chances now are very good. We have a seven-point lead on Tottenham. It's entirely down to us.”
English football fans, notoriously tribalistic in their fandom, will for once be on the same side: supporting Leicester City. If the Foxes secure a win at Old Trafford, the home of United, Leicester will complete one of sport's outstanding achievements by winning the English Premier League.
Europe has seen great title victories by the likes of France's Montpeller (2012) and Germany's Kaisersalutern, but for it to be done in the money-centric Premier League adds extra value. Leicester's win will be at the expense of Tottenham who many believe have the stronger team, and equally would have been a surprise-package.
But 2016 looks to be Leicester's year – and they could do it in style at the home of England's record
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