LONDON – Seeing a team win the Premier League title at Old Trafford is nothing new, but on Saturday that honor could go to Leicester City, not Manchester United.
If Leicester beats United it will be crowned champion. It still feels strange to write that and there remains a belief we shall wake up and it has all been a dream. Even now “Leicester City — Premier League winners” seems unreal, but the Foxes require just three points from their three remaining matches to live the most unlikely of dreams.
There is, of course, a chance the fairy tale could have an unhappy ending. It is possible that Claudio Ranieri’s side can still be overtaken by Tottenham, though that would be more of a shock than Leicester winning the title and the odds against that last August were 5,000-1. However, in a season where Leicester has turned football upside down nobody, especially the Foxes, is taking anything for granted.
Old Trafford may not be the fortress it once was, but United is in good form, players are playing for their F.A. Cup final places and Louis van Gaal needs every win the team can muster as the shadow of Jose Mourinho looms large.
Yet Leicester has showed no sign of nerves, no sign of being affected by the pressure getting to the team, no sign of falling at the final hurdle. Leicester has lost only three games in a season it has made memorable for all the right reasons; it has won 23 points out of a possible 27 since the loss to Arsenal; it has conceded just eight goals since Boxing Day and the outsiders who finished 17th last year tick every box to be title winners.
Leicester would be the first new Champions of England since Nottingham Forest in 1978) — since then no team finishing lower than seventh the previous season has won the title.
Spurs’ 1-1 draw with West Bromwich on Monday gave Leicester the chance to complete the most remarkable 12-month turnaround in football on Saturday. From the trap-door of relegation to the summit of the Premier League in one giant leap is the stuff of comic books.
There may be better teams technically in the Premier League, but none has shown the consistency, the defensive stability, the midfield dynamism, the attacking creativity or the clinical edge in attack of Leicester.
The way Ranieri has led the side has been a managerial master class. The avuncular Italian seems to have a permanent smile on his face — this was also the case under different circumstances at Chelsea — and the idiosyncrasies of his English add to his considerable charm. There has been none of the confrontation that is Mourinho’s hallmark, none of the mind games that Sir Alex Ferguson perfected, none of the incessant criticism of referees that seems to be in many managers’ contracts.
Yes, Leicester has been fortunate with injuries, which you cannot control. It also has the second-best disciplinary record in the Premier League, which can be controlled. Jamie Vardy misses Sunday’s game because of his sending-off against West Ham, but that was a rare excess for the Foxes.
Riyad Mahrez was voted Player of the Year by the Professional Footballers’ Association. The Algerian, along with teammates N’Golo Kanté and Vardy, are leading candidates for the Football Writers’ Association’s Footballer of the Year award. Lovers of trivia will be delighted to know N’Golo Kanté would be the first player with an apostrophe and an accent in his name to win a title medal in English football.
Leicester has become the people’s favorite, the team most (apart from Spurs fans) want to win the Premier League. Its success has given hope to those clubs who believed the F.A. Cup or League Cup must be the limit of their ambitions.
West Bromwich, Southampton or Stoke next season? Probably not and it will be interesting to see how upstart Leicester fares with the Champions League added to its workload.
Right now, victory at Old Trafford is Leicester’s only focus. Should it trip up, there is always Everton (home) or current champion Chelsea (away) to win the three points needed to succeed the Londoners.
Sport is littered with hard-luck stories, of nearly men and gallant losers. There has been no hint of tears rather than cheers, commiserations instead of celebration and how fitting if Leicester should complete its fairy tale at the Theatre of Dreams.
Musical chairs: Watford is expected to begin the search for its seventh manager since December 2014 next month. Yes, the Watford that is 12th in the Premier League, that has never been in relegation trouble after promotion last summer and that reached the F.A. Cup semifinals.
To most, Quique Sanchez Flores has done a very satisfactory job. But not, apparently, to the Pozzo family, which owns the club. Its worry is that the results in the league since the turn of the year have not been as good as during the first half of the campaign and this could spill over into next season, putting Watford’s place in the world’s most lucrative league in danger.
The board said it will discuss the manager’s future at the end of the season, a statement which suggests a new man will be on his way. The Pozzo revolving door policy means he would follow Gianfranco Zola, Beppe Sannino, Oscar Garcia, Billy McKinlay, Slavisa Jokanovic and Flores whose reigns have lasted between eight days and 18 months.
Payday: Dominic Solanke has made one first-team appearance amounting to 17 minutes for Chelsea. He has spent this season on loan at Vitesse Arnhem. The 18-year-old forward has a year left on his £7,000 contract and his agent — his stepfather — wants a deal worth £50,000 a week. His stepfather is Solanke’s third agent.
As Chelsea has a tradition of continuing to loan out promising young players rather than giving them a chance at Stamford Bridge, Solanke could become the highest-paid player in the Championship.
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.
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