Whoever you are supporting in this season’s title race – I don’t imagine you would think of Leicester City being one of those right up there, jostling amongst the big boys for a shot at the title. But this is where the rejuvenated Foxes find themselves now.
Such is their staggering turnaround from almost certainly doomed to relegation at Christmas last year, to now sitting third in the Premier League table almost a year on, many fans have had the word ‘relegation’ eradicated from their Foxes vocabulary, and instead replaced it with the phrase ‘European football’.
Even more remarkable is that, on paper, little has changed from the team that looked set for a quick return to the Championship. Midfield inspirer Esteban Cambiasso departed for pastures new, whilst many players seemed to retain their place in the starting XI. When Nigel Pearson was sacked and replaced by tinkerman Claudio Ranieri, many fans raised an eyebrow at a man who was much more used to dealing with teams of the quality of Chelsea, or Juventus, as his CV dictates. The questions about whether Ranieri could cope with a seemingly tumultuous reign at the King Power Stadium were rife, and arrived in numbers.
Not to be brought down, the Italian has gone about his business quietly, and efficiently. Yet I don’t believe even he could forsee the extent of his magic. The signings of Shinji Okazaki, Nathan Dyer, and Riyad Mahrez, were hardly marquee signings with proven Premier League pedigree, and yet they have proved incredibly shrewd signings for fees that didn’t exactly break the bank. Quite a paradox when you consider the state of affairs of teams who have spent hundreds of millions to be currently sitting in mid table (not looking at Mr Mourinho here!)
Mahrez has proved the signing of the season thus far. With a handful of goals, and more assists, he is already catching the eye of Manchester United, amongst others. His speed and fearlessness in moving forward is something Leciester severely lacked last year, as goals proved hard to come by. Not just his individual wizardry however, Mahrez has also wasted no time in integrating himself with the Foxes team, not to mention the fans. His link up with Jamie Vardy has proved highly fruitful for both players, as Vardy seeks to land himself a spot on the England team for next years Euro’s in France, he can owe some of his current purple patch to the work rate and creativity of Mahrez.
Whilst much of the plaudits have landed – quite justifiably – at the feet of Mahrez and Vardy, it would be unfair to single them out as the sole reason for Leicester’s good season so far. At the back, Wes Morgan has transformed into something of a brick wall at the back – one reminiscent of Nemanja Vidic, or John Terry in the pair’s yesteryears. A solid bridge of communication between himself and his surrounding defenders – including keeper Kasper Schmeichel, not to mention defensive anchor Danny Drinkwater – has proved vital in Leicester’s ability to shut out the attacks they have faced this year, with the only blot on their copybook being Arsenal putting six past them. Schmeichel himself has found his career constantly on the lines of judgment, thanks in no small part to the legendary exploits of his father, but has quietly become a big presence at the defensive end of City’s team. He has chosen an ideal time to mature into a commander of the box – after the arrival of seasoned Aussie keeper Mark Schwarzer to keep him on his toes and ensures he plays every game like he might be dropped. Schwarzer may be 40, but that does nothing to fade his label of goalkeeping pro.
And what of Ranieri himself? Some said he was too dated a manager to lead Leicester into a period of change and stability. He was disposed of imminently when Roman Abramovich bough Chelsea, and didn’t last all that long as manager of Juventus, or Inter Milan, yet his surprising appointment as Leciester boss shows he is still a man who can cut it in English management. Yet he is also a man who likes to gel himself within the team. His use of local rock band Kasabian to inspire his players to their 4-2 opening day win over Sunderland, his tempting them with pizza if they could keep a clean sheet – something they achieved with a 1-0 against Crystal Palace – are signs that Ranieri’s warm, unique approach to being part of the team is what is making him such an unexpected yet thoroughly enjoyable hit at the King Power Stadium.
Sustaining this kind of form will not be easy for the Foxes. They still have a long way to go, but as they go into the week sitting high and mighty at the top of the table, to lay a bet on them slowing down this unprecedented run of results would take a brave gambler indeed.