LONDON – One of the things that makes football so intriguing is the occasional inability to explain failure or success.
Nobody, fans or highly paid pundits, can come up with a reason (or reasons) why champion Chelsea capitulated this season. In the end we all agreed it was because Jose Mourinho lost the dressing room, though there is no doubt more to it than that. We shall have to wait for a player’s book.
The rise and rise of Leicester City has baffled everyone, even its team. If Einstein were a football supporter he’d struggle to put his finger on why a side can go from relegation near-certainty a year ago to Premier League title favorite. Having pulled off an unlikely survival act last May, Leicester appointed Claudio Ranieri, who had been sacked by Greece after four games, the last a home defeat to the Faroe Islands.
How we chuckled, how we mocked. To paraphrase Joe Namath, we guaranteed Leicester would be relegated. The bookmakers agreed, making the Foxes 7-4 to go down and 5,000-1 to win the title, roughly the same odds as Elvis becoming president of the USA.
If Leicester beats Arsenal at the Emirates Sunday, it will surely be more a question of when than if it will be champions. It would be the greatest, most unexpected and inexplicable achievement in the history of English football. Greater than Alf Ramsey leading Ipswich to the title in 1962 and Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest finishing first in 1978. Within that period the title was won by nine different clubs as opposed to the four usual suspects in the 23-year Premier League era. Blackburn won it in 1995 — a small club, but it had massive financial backing from former owner Jack Walker and had finished second the previous season.
While Ipswich and Forest were hardly big city clubs, it was a slightly more level playing field then. Unlike Leicester today, it was not up against clubs funded by oligarchs, Middle East sheiks and American billionaires. To knock such opposition aside is borderline impossible.
It couldn’t . . . shouldn’t happen, but it is, even if there is still a collective shaking of heads in bemusement as Leicester inches closer to the finish line.
On the other hand, for Arsenal to fail to win the title would be the mother of all missed opportunities. It would be embarrassing for the Gunners to miss out to the upstarts from Leicester, whose team that beat Manchester City 3-1 last weekend cost £22.7 million. At City, that sum is more like a signing-on fee, not the total cost of a side. And almost one-third of that went on Shinji Okazaki who cost £7 million from Mainz.
A Leicester victory Sunday would see it eight points clear of Arsenal which, with Chelsea, Manchester City and Manchester United punching below its weight, has a golden opportunity to win its first title in 12 years. They never dreamed Leicester and neighbor Tottenham would provide such a challenge.
The leading teams tend to have the best players and it is here that Leicester has been underestimated. Head of recruitment Steve Walsh deserves a football knighthood for his services to finding hidden gems.
Looking at the Leicester team, most of its players would get into its rivals’ sides while my best XI of the season so far contains six Leicester heroes.
I can see no better right-back than Danny Simpson who cost £2 million from Queens Park Rangers. Left-back Christian Fuchs, who will captain Austria at Euro 2016, was brought in on a free transfer from Schalke 04 and has been sensational. There is no more effective defensive midfield partnership than Danny Drinkwater, who spent three years with Manchester United without making a single appearance, and Golo Kante, snapped up from Caen for £5.6 million last summer.
Then there are Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy — I love this stat: goals and assists this season between Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo 43; Mahrez and Vardy 47.
How Mahrez escaped the radar of Europe’s top clubs is a mystery. He spent three years with Le Havre before joining Leicester for £400,000 two years ago. The Algeria international is a delight to watch as he takes on and beats the best defenders in the Premier League with almost embarrassing ease.
Four years ago, Vardy was playing for Fleetwood in the National Conference. His 18 goals in 24 league games makes him the leading scorer and he is certain to be in England’s Euro 2016 squad this summer.
Ranieri was such a surprise appointment he did not even figure in the betting, but what an inspired appointment he has proved to be. The Italian is not just one of the nicest managers I have worked with, he is one of the friendliest people I have ever met. The former Chelsea manager has been in charge of some of Europe’s best known clubs with mixed success, but perhaps he is better suited to managing an underdog rather than a team with high expectations.
It is ironic that at Chelsea, Ranieri was known as the “Tinkerman” because of constant alterations to the lineup. Leicester has made just 21 changes to its starting lineup in Premier League matches this term; the fewest in the division.
Arsene Wenger knows Arsenal’s league season is effectively on the line against Leicester. The Gunners are one of two sides to have beaten the Foxes this season and Vardy said: “No doubt it will be tough, we know the players they’ve got are world class, but although we lost 5-2 when we played them last time we did show that we can hurt them. I think it’ll be a matter of us tightening up a bit defensively which, as we’ve seen, we’ve kept a lot of clean sheets recently.
“It’s going to be a good, entertaining game.”
In the last 15 meetings between the sides, Leicester has not recorded a victory over the Gunners, a run that stretches back to 1998, though the Foxes are a different opposition under Ranieri.
Arsenal tends to do better in matches when it is under pressure and victory for the Gunners with Manchester City and Tottenham drawing would see, with 12 matches remaining in the season, a fascinating, more open look to the top of the table: Leicester 53 points, Arsenal 51, Tottenham 49, and Manchester City 48.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.