For the top four? The top six? Not to spend the season fighting relegation? And keep your hand up if the appointment of Claudio Ranieri had you nodding your head and murmuring ‘Ah yes, the final piece of the jigsaw…..’
Well, you’re lying, and that goes for the staunchest Foxes fan as well. Nobody whatsoever predicted the parallel footballing universe we’re seeing unfolding before us. The meeting between Mourinho’s epically misfiring Chelsea and Ranieri’s front runners on Monday night was billed by many as marking the likely point at which normal service would begin to be resumed, when Chelsea would begin to click (of which, admittedly, there were a few sporadic signs) whilst Leicester began the long, painful descent back to earth. Well, nobody told Jamie Vardy, Riyadh Mahrez or the thirty thousand Leicester fans bouncing the King Power Stadium all but off its foundations, as Leicester recorded a 2-1 victory.
The question now is how far can it go? Where will Leicester be in May? After each round of results, sage football pundits have stroked their chins thoughtfully and admitted that, yes, it was wonderful to see a new name break the Top Four hegemony, but, let’s be sensible, it wasn’t going to last. And then it lasted another week.
Despite the nagging thought that teams like Leicester simply don’t break into the big time any more, some of the stats from past seasons are undoubtedly on their side. In the Premier League, the team which was top after 16 games has gone on to win the title in 14 of 23 seasons, although of the eight different clubs covered by this statistic, only Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea have done so.
Whilst they may lack the strength in depth to hold off both Manchester City and Arsenal to take the title, the chances of a top four or six finish (either one of which would count as a huge triumph) grow with every passing week, and much will now depend upon any comings and goings in the January transfer window.
The first and most vital piece of business will be to hang on to Vardy and Mahrez, both of whom have attracted predictable interest from the likes of Manchester united, Arsenal, Spurs and, apparently, Real Madrid. In seasons past, a club like Leicester would simply have to accept the grim inevitability of such a move and attempt to negotiate the best transfer fee possible.
As failed transfers such as Chelsea’s bid for Everton’s John Stones and Manchester United’s pursuit of Southampton’s Sadio Mane demonstrated in the summer, however, the shifting financial landscape brought about by the latest TV rights deal has left the so called ‘smaller’ clubs in a much better position to hang on to their most valued assets.
To this end, a new contract with Vardy is rumoured to be on the table already, including a doubling of the striker’s wages. With Vardy targeting a place in England’s Euro 2016 squad, the stability of staying at Leicester at least until the end of the season – not to mention the chance to find out exactly how much they are capable of achieving – should prove hard to resist.
Quiet New Year
Ranieri is on record as saying that there won’t be any transfer activity during the January window, and, while the meagre 13 changes he’s made to Premier League line ups this season indicate that he’s loath to mess with a winning formula, it’s hard to believe absolutely nobody will come in.
Billionaire owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha will surely recognise that this is a chance which may not come round again, and sanction the investment required should fatigue and injury begin to take their toll. Names which have been linked to Leicester include AC Milan’s Nigel de Jong, Ghanaian defender Daniel Amartey, who they tried to sign during the summer, only to fall foul of the FA’s work permit stipulations, and the promising 19 year old Birmingham City winger Demarai Gray.
Anyone doubting the effectiveness of winter signings, meanwhile, should remember that Riyadh Mahrez, currently vying with Mesut Ozil for the title of most effective creator of chances in the league, was signed last January.
Any neutrals keeping their fingers crossed for Leicester should bear one terrifying thing in mind, however; following the victory against Chelsea , Gary Lineker tweeted that, if they won the Premier League, he’d present the first Match of the Day next season wearing ‘just my undies’.