LONDON – Top of the league in Spain: Barcelona. In Germany: Bayern Munich. In France: PSG. In England: Leicester City. An unlikely foursome.
On Saturday, Leicester plays Manchester United in the most remarkable top-of-the-table clash in Premier League history. This time last season after 13 matches Leicester was bottom; a year later at the same stage it is first. Nobody thinks it will stay there, but no one believed it would lead the way, especially with a third of the season gone.
When the sides met 14 months ago, Leicester came from 3-1 down to win 5-3, the first time United had lost a Premier League game after having a two-goal lead. A similar result Saturday is unlikely though it promises to be a fascinating game with the most prolific attack against the most miserly defense.
Two very different managers going head-to-head — one who was ridiculed when he was appointed but is now proving critics wrong; the other initially feted but is now a target for constant criticism.
Louis van Gaal’s honeymoon period at United is over. Paul Scholes called the side “a defensive team with an attack.”
On the night Old Trafford marked the occasion of the 10th anniversary of George Best’s death, the drab 0-0 draw with PSV saw the Reds cry out for a player who could add flair and finishing to an impotent forward line.
There is no doubt United has as many, if not more outstanding players as any Premier League team. Put them together, though, and it becomes 90 minutes of frustration, boredom and ordinary entertainment-free football.
The beautiful game? Not under van Gaal who is specializing in tactical masterpieces that leave United fans, brought up on a diet of exciting football, cold.
Instead of getting behind the side, the supporters are getting on the team’s back, which is not surprising after six goal-less draws in 12 home matches. The Theatre of Dreams is no Theatre of Screams these days and if the players need encouragement, they must provide the spark for the crowd which they are failing to do.
In contrast, the regulars at the King Power Stadium are loving every minute of watching the best Leicester side they can remember. They are making the most of Claudio Ranieri’s attacking philosophy and the man nicknamed “Tinkerman” at Chelsea has been shrewd enough to oversee minimal changes to the team he inherited from Nigel Pearson after a storming finale to last season.
Ranieri has kept Pearson’s back-room staff to help continuity and the players are clearly enjoying life under the Italian, their body language so different from the multimillionaires from Manchester, who seem desperate to throw off their tactical straitjackets.
Kasper Schmeichel is keeping the family’s goalkeeping tradition going, Danny Drinkwater has been a revelation as a defensive midfielder and Jamie Vardy appears incapable of not scoring. A goal today will see the England international break Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in 10 consecutive Premier League games.
“Records are there to be broken and I hope he does it,” said the former United striker. “But I hope United score three.”
Tabloid fodder: Jack Grealish is an average footballer with the worst team in the Premier League. He is a star before he is a player who is likely to remain in the international wilderness after making himself available for England rather than the Republic of Ireland.
The Aston Villa midfielder should realize that you are who you associate with. At the moment he seems happy to hang around with people who see him as a cash magnet. He should consider ditching these parasites and find friends whose decent habits will hopefully rub off on him.
Last Tuesday, a national newspaper published photographs of Grealish in a Manchester nightclub where pictures showed him “singing into the camera in an enthusiastic manner” before champagne bottles and sparklers arrived at the table.
Grealish, 20, then traveled home to Birmingham where the next day he “hosted a gathering involving two blonde women” at a hotel.
There was also a photo of a friend inhaling “what seems to be hippy crack from a balloon.” The paper stated there is no suggestion Grealish was inhaling from the balloons.
There are two ways of looking at this. Six days before his side’s next match Grealish, given permission by Villa to remain in the northwest after the 4-0 loss at Everton, went to a night club and sang a song enthusiastically. Wow, the kids of today, eh? Champagne arrived at the table though there is no suggestion he drank any, or even ordered it.
On that Sunday, Grealish went to an event where two blonde girls were also present. So a young footballer may have spent some of Saturday evening in a night club not drinking alcohol before the next day going to a bash in Birmingham, where two blondes were present along with some clown apparently being stupid.
A non-story on the face of it . . . but not in the age of phones with cameras and newspapers with money. One of Grealish’s so-called friends has sold the photos to a paper who inevitably made it into a shock-horror back page lead.
Grealish did himself no favors. The moral is that in 2015 professional footballers cannot put themselves at risk by behaving like this. That is not to say Grealish did anything other than be a bit silly (thankfully not a crime) but the perception after a newspaper revs up the story is that he was on a boozy night out in a drugs den. Grealish must choose his venues and his friends more carefully if he is to have any hope of an international career.
He must live the life of a professional footballer, which does not include walking on the wild side and being photographed alongside clowns holding balloons with dubious contents. Villa manager Remi Garde was less than impressed with Grealish’s latest nocturnal wanderings and ordered him to train with the kids. Though he broke no club rules, with Villa bottom of the table it was hardly the cleverest piece of PR.
As things stand, Grealish has only marginally more chance of making England’s Euro 2016 squad than I do.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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