Premier League Season Review – Leicester City

Leicester City: 1st (champions)

FA Cup: Round Three

Capital One Cup: Round Four

Leicester City are without doubt the architects of the greatest triumph in recent sporting history; a case of David overcoming a whole army of Goliaths; a team largely made up of bargain buys and players who failed to make the grade at some of those supposedly elite clubs winning the Premier League title at the end of a season which they began among the favourites for relegation. The word ‘fairytale’ is used much too often in football, but this most unlikely and unfathomable achievement has to go down as one of the most epic of them all.

As a whole, the club had never won an English league championship in their history despite spending all but one season in their history in the top two divisions. As late as mid-April in the previous campaign they were lying bottom of the table and looking set for an instant return to the Championship, having been written off for months as certainties to go down.

That was when they first began to defy the odds as Nigel Pearson led them through a sensational sequence of seven wins in nine matches to retain Premier League status and finish in the relative comfort of 14th place. The team was now showing its true capabilities and were optimistic going into the summer, but an ongoing dispute with the club’s owners saw Pearson abruptly sacked in June 2015.

The announcement of Claudio Ranieri as his replacement was met with an overwhelming sense of indifference, almost across the board. The former Chelsea boss had just had a brief and disastrous spell in charge of the Greek national team and had been away from English football over 11 years. Dubbed the ‘tinkerman’ due to his old reputation for constantly changing his starting line-up from game to game, the Italian’s arrival only lowered the odds on their potential demise even more.

Left-back Christian Fuchs had already been recruited, before he was accompanied by hardworking Japanese forward Shinji Okazaki and experienced midfielder Gokhan Inler. One slightly less familiar name was that of tenacious young French star N’Golo Kante, who would go on to be lauded as arguably the signing of the summer.

There were many doubters, but they were forced to rethink on the opening day of the season as the Foxes were three goals up inside 25 minutes against Sunderland before eventually winning 4-2. Riyad Mahrez helped himself to a hat-trick and there was a clear emphasis on sharp counter-attacking play, but many thought it might just have been a flash in the pan thanks to the defensive fragility of their opponents.

It was not so as Okazaki and Mahrez inspired them to victory at West Ham United the following week, but it was not until mid-September and the incredible come-from-behind success at home to Aston Villa where it appeared that something special might be brewing. From two goals down and seemingly down and out they turned it around to win 3-2, and more improbable comebacks soon followed away to Southampton and Stoke City.

The one defeat came at home to Arsenal, where a lack of pace in central defence was badly exploited. Many felt the bubble had burst, but with the encouragement of Ranieri and the backing of the supporters they responded strongly, although the only thing missing until October’s win over Crystal Palace was a clean sheet, for which the players were rewarded with pizza. Meanwhile, the scintillating early season form of Mahrez showed no sign of coming to an end as his tally of goals and assists continued to rise.

But it would soon be the turn of Jamie Vardy to take centre stage, as he broke the Premier League record for goals scored in consecutive games, achieving it in the grand manner against Manchester United in late November by registering for the 11th outing in succession. The striker who had spent most of his career in non-league football was now a national celebrity having propelled his side to the top of the league, with talk also surrounding the suggestion of a Hollywood movie depicting his incredible rise.

Even at this point talk over the possibility of Leicester somehow winning the title was viewed as fanciful to say the least, with most observers just awaiting the moment at which they would fall away. Belying his moniker of times past, Ranieri had stuck with a settled team, only changing the full-backs during the autumn in order to ensure greater defensive solidity as Fuchs and Danny Simpson replaced Ritchie de Laet and Jeffrey Schlupp. It was a decision that had the desired effect.

A three-game winless streak over the festive period that included defeat at Liverpool, and during which they failed to score, led some to question their staying power, but Leicester soon regained their momentum with an ultimately crucial win at Tottenham. And with the persistently livewire displays of Okazaki and Kante accompanied by the sheer confidence exuded by Vardy, they began to build a lead at the top, enhanced by a jaw-dropping 3-1 victory at Manchester City.

A week later they were beaten at the death by Arsenal, but again the recovery was exemplary as Ranieri then masterminded a series of 1-0 victories in which they began to show the traditional characteristics of champions. Kasper Schmeichel was top-drawer in goal behind a group of outfield players who never let the side down despite their modest value compared to players at other clubs.

There were still those who felt that sooner or later they would feel the pressure of pulling off the impossible, but it just did not happen and the title seemed to be all-but theirs after a win over Sunderland in April gave them a seven point lead with just five games to go as only Tottenham stood a chance of catching them in the event of a total loss of form.

Questions were asked by Spurs as they won at Stoke in response to the Foxes’ 2-2 draw at home to West Ham, where a last-gasp Leonard Ulloa penalty spared them from defeat in a match which saw Vardy sent off. The two-match suspension that ensued for the top scorer raised yet more doubts, but again they were swept away as Ulloa scored twice to help blow away Swansea City.

A week later victory at Manchester United would have won them the title. They could not quite manage it on the day as Wes Morgan’s header earned them a point, but it was all over the following evening as Tottenham could only draw at Chelsea. The celebrations could begin and the players well and truly erupted upon confirmation of their crowning as champions, while Ranieri took a backseat, maintaining the dignified presence he brought with him everywhere throughout the season.

The trophy was lifted on the first weekend of May, and it was only then for some people that the magnitude of what had happened only begun to sink in. Leicester were the champions, and by a whooping 10-point margin. It is the kind of thing that may never happen again, but one wonders what they might get up to next season, especially with Champions League football on the agenda.

 

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