What a difference a year or so can make – both for bad and for good, especially in the case of Leicester City.
In April 2015, Leicester City were all set for a return to the Championship, one season after gaining promotion. It is a tale that has been seen time and time again in Europe’s major leagues, and there will be quite a few sides whose stay in the top flight will only be for one season.
On April 3rd, the Foxes were seven points from safety, with nine points remaining. They had been rooted to the bottom of the table since round 13, and had not won a game since January 10th, 2015. For all intents and purposes, they had been already written off and looked set to be one of the three sides to be relegated at the conclusion of the 2014/2015 Premier League campaign.
Well, what would transpire over the next 24 hours would forever change Leicester’s fortunes and the course of Premier League history. A 2-1 win over West Ham was the catalyst the Foxes desperately needed, as they would go on to win seven out of their last nine matches to secure a 14th place spot. And in doing so, they became only the third side to survive the drop after being bottom of the table at the halfway point of the season. The first to do so was West Brom in 2005, and Sunderland pulled off a similar miraculous escape in 2014.
Comeback kings: The Foxes and the “Tinkerman” form the perfect combination
So, they had done it – avoided the drop. Most figured that Leicester City would, at best, maybe manage a top ten finish after coach Nigel Pearson was sacked last summer and Claudio Ranieri was appointed in his stead.
Although the Italian tactician had managed some pretty notable clubs around Europe – Juventus, Chelsea, Roma, Inter, and Atletico Madrid are among those on his CV – he was not the type of coach that fans of “bigger clubs” would have been too enthused about having on the bench. Still, this is what makes him the perfect option for Leicester, as at the time he took the position, there was little expected of him, or the club. After a frustrating spell with the Greek national team, Ranieri’s stock had fallen even further, and he was desperate to redeem himself by making a return to club management and at the very least, guide the Foxes into the top half of the table.
Still, in the absence of pressure and expectations, Ranieri was able to quietly go about his work. As the Foxes began to climb the table, others began to sit up and take notice, especially when they also began picking up wins or draws against over teams like Chelsea, Manchester United, and Liverpool. Most significant, Leicester City did not always sit back, “park the bus”, and try to hold out for a draw – they brought the game to the traditional giants of English football.
Arsenal, to date, are the only team out of England’s “Big 5” to have successfully completed a double against Leicester this season. In addition, the Gunners are the only side to have scored more than two goals in Premier League play when taking on Ranieri’s side, which is a testament to how much they have improved over the course of the past 11 months.
With nine rounds remaining…will Leicester City go the distance?
So, here we are: nine rounds remain for the Foxes until the end of the 2015/2016 Premier League campaign. However, unlike 11 months ago, Leicester City are not facing a battle for survival. No, they are now fighting to clinch the Premier League title – a place that not even their most ardent fan would have anticipated at the start of this season.
Tottenham – another impressive performer this term – will certainly hope that this season’s surprise leaders will hit a bump, crash, and then burn. With Spurs having picked up a win over Aston Villa, the onus will be on Ranieri’s men to clinch maximum points when they welcome Newcastle United on Monday evening. But the question is, will they be able to overcome this final hurdle?
Considering that they managed to defy the odds last season, they can certainly do it again this term. Except this time, it’s not survival they are after, but to finally plant that flag on the mountain’s summit. And should they be crowned Premier League champions this May, it will not only be one of the biggest upsets football fans have ever seen, but will show that truly, anything is possible.