It’s a joy to see the Foxes chase some of the Premier League’s crowing cockerels
Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, Claudio Ranieri and co have been sensational this season
The improbable inclusion of Leicester City in a fixture between first and second in the English Premier League underscores the freakishness of this bizarre season.
The top-of-the-pile Foxes take on second-placed Manchester United later Saturday, in a game that could see England sensation Jamie Vardy notch up his 11th goal in as many consecutive Premier League games and supplant former Red Devils turbo goal machine, Ruud Van Nistelrooy, in the record books.
Leicester’s blistering form is all the more remarkable when you consider that when the club’s Thai owners appointed Italian Claudio Ranieri following the end of season departure of the pugnacious Neil Person, many were quick to sound the club’s top-flight death knell.
Pearson had plucked the Foxes from relegation oblivion and was sacked for his troubles. He was replaced by Ranieri, who had recently humiliated the Greeks during his disastrous reign as their national coach.
Many – including former Foxes and England star, pundit Gary Lineker – raised eyebrows at the appointment of the 64 year-old Italian, dubbed by many at his former clubs as “The Tinkerman” for his often cack-handed approach.
Ranieri possesses a colourful CV and Leicester represent the least glamourous inclusion.
He has helmed Chelsea, Juventus, Valencia, Inter Milan and Monaco, and was dismissed by each.
A year ago he was unceremoniously sacked by Greece after a shameful home defeat by European lightweights the Faroe Islands; the embarrassed Hellenic Football Federation apologised to the Greek nation for a “most unfortunate choice of coach”.
Little wonder the doomsayers and bookmakers predicted that under yesterday’s man Ranieri, Leicester would become an extinct EPL species by next May.
On the contrary. His rehabilitation following his Greek tragedy has been swift.
True, Ranieri was afforded a healthy inheritance when he arrived at King Power Stadium. And he has tinkered effectively, ridding of Pearson’s three-man defence and deploying a 4-4-1-1 that has secured a 62 per cent win ratio.
Leicester’s 3-0 demolition of Newcastle last week means they have now racked up an impressive 50 points from a possible 66 since April 4.
Of course, many believe Leicester’s rise to the top has, luckily, dove-tailed with the coming of age of 28-year-old Jamie Vardy.
But as Foxes supporters are keen to point out, Vardy is one of 11 players on the pitch playing as if their lives depended upon it, with the likes of Danny Drinkwater and Riyad Mahrez adding to their impressive 28 goal tally thus far.
The fighting spirit among Leicester’s unpretentious, unsung heroes embolden the soul for neutrals too. They are a far cry from many of the EPL marquee stars who strut around as if on a catwalk and on the look-out for another transfer up the wage ladder.
Equally inspiring is that the Foxes squad cost a fraction of the likes of Arsenal, Liverpool, Man City, Chelsea and their opponents today, Manchester Utd.
Crucially, it is Leicester’s style of play that captivates the imagination and which is winning them points against greater foes.
There is much debate about how EPL football is evolving away from the much exalted need for possession – the passing of the ball to its death before having a pop at goal.
Ranieri’s team have one of the poorest pass completion rates in the league. Yet when in possession, every move is an aggressive forward one, with heads up looking to break their opponents lines, rather than choosing the safer, sideways passing option.
Lightning, combative counter-attacking is the EPL’s answer to tiki taka, and no pair execute this breathtaking undoing of opponents than Vardy and Mahrez, who along with their forward-thinking team mates, turn defence into attack in the blink of an eye.
Without the ball, Leicester press and harry their opponents into mistakes, breaking up play and winning possession back higher up the pitch.
Their passing precision might go wanting, but the Foxes have made more interceptions than any other team this season; midfielder Drinkwater is nicknamed “The Rash” because he is all over his opponents from start to finish.
Similar to Southampton’s impressive top four billing in the first half of last season, Leicester are like a breath of fresh air, mixing it up with the ostentatious super clubs with a sense of true grit, purpose and highly watchable football.
Entertaining Manchester United today marks the start of a tough run. Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City between now and the New Year will test Leicester’s mettle and team spirit to the limit.
Wining the league or Champions League qualification might prove a mission impossible for Ranieri once the winter and subsequent injuries set in.
But for now, it’s a pleasure to watch the Foxes ruffle feathers and cause the EPL’s crowing cockerels to pause for thought.