When the final whistle blew at Manchester City’s Etihad Stadium this past Sunday, it marked one of the standout moments of the 2015/16 Premier League season. Manchester City’s loss to Liverpool meant Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester City will enjoy at least until the next match day their place at the top of the Premier League table. Twelve months ago, they were bottom of the Premier League.
Last Saturday’s 3–0 win over Newcastle United propelled Ranieri’s Foxes to the top of English football’s ladder, but it also spelt the end of Leicester’s relatively easy run of matches to start the season. The Foxes have thus far played against Sunderland, West Ham, Tottenham, Bournemouth, Aston Villa, Stoke, Arsenal, Norwich, Southampton, Crystal Palace, West Brom, Watford and Newcastle.
In their 13 games, only twice have they faced genuine top quality opponents in Spurs and Arsenal, and in those two games, they managed just a single point from six. There are portents to suggest Ranieri’s honeymoon period might just have seen its end, but there is also the fact to consider that Leicester’s good run in the season could yet continue, as success breeds more success, and no team has been as successful as Leicester this term.
But the bigger question — one that seemed ludicrous just a month ago — is whether Leicester will be able to sustain their momentum to stay atop the table by the year’s end. In a run of six games in the space of a month before the advent of January 2016, Leicester will entertain Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City to the King Power Stadium, while also travelling to Swansea and the two Merseyside clubs.
To suggest Leicester will lose against traditionally superior opponents in their coming rounds of games is an argument that holds little substance, given the state of the league at the moment, and the fact Leicester have been equally good to lead the big clubs with more than a third of the season having already been played. Going by the form book, Leicester are easy bets to continue their hot streak.
The Foxes currently are the most in-form team in the league; they are the form team away from home and only Manchester United and Spurs have earned more points than Leicester in their last five home games. In isolation, the away trips to Swansea, Everton and Liverpool before New Year could see Leicester consolidate their position at the top of the table.
But there are other factors, too, to consider because had things been as straightforward, Leicester wouldn’t have been leading the Premier League by now. Manchester United are the visitors to the King Power Stadium on Saturday. The visitors will arrive on the back of a testing Champions League clash at Old Trafford against PSV Eindhoven, so expect them to arrive with more than just a few little bruises.
Plus United have had a spate of recent injuries to deal with, and factor in Leicester’s extended period of rest throughout the week which make for a favourable case of a home win. However, Louis van Gaal’s Red Devils have proved to be of sterner kind this season, and it will be upon the likes of supposed United transfer target Riyad Mahrez and league top scorer Jamie Vardy to break what has been a resolute rearguard which has conceded the lowest goals this season.
Vardy is poised to break ex-United striker Ruud van Nistelrooy’s Premier League era record of scoring in 11 consecutive games, and the England international couldn’t have chosen a better opponent to possibly leave an indelible mark on the English game. The plucky striker has 13 goals to his name thus far, while his partner in crime, Mahrez, has seven goals and six assists. Whether Leicester’s twin threats will be enough to score past David De Gea is open to debate, though.
Their next opponents, Swansea, look the easiest team to take all three points off during their year-end run-in. Garry Monk’s Swans have suffered from serious dips in form and fortune after a solid start to the campaign. The Welsh club have tasted just a single win — that too against bottom club Aston Villa — since the start of September. Early season optimism about a European surge is history at the Liberty Stadium now; there is more speculation surrounding the uncertainty of Monk’s job at the helm.
Leicester’s Swansea game looks a winnable fixture from the outside; the fact the Foxes haven’t lost away from home this season makes it easier to consider the result a foregone conclusion, but stranger things happen in the Premier League, as exemplified by Leicester this season. A win looks the best bet, while anything less than a draw will mean Leicester will have dropped points in a relatively easy game sandwiched between difficult home games.
Facing the champions looked a pretty daunting prospect at the start of the season, but it seems Chelsea and Leicester have effectively swapped places this season. Last season, the Foxes had lost seven of their opening 13 games of the season to languish in the lower reaches of the table while Chelsea were on their bike towards establishing a domineering lead at the top of the table.
This season, however, things have been quite the opposite and scarcely conceivable as Chelsea will, in all probability, pay their visit to the King Power as one of the clubs in the bottom half of the table. Chelsea’s form on the road has been embarrassing, losing four of their six away games this season. Leicester could barely have a better chance than the midweek game on December 15th to inflict misery on the Blues, the day when Ranieri will face off against his former employers in Leicester colours for the first time.
“I like this concoction which life seems to have in store for me. They seek me out, special tasks in special situations. Wherever I go, the club is never to stay on the same square on the board, they have to move up. I don’t know if it’s coincidence, some calling or destiny — but whatever it is, it’s the story of my life,” said Ranieri back in 2008 when he was the Juventus manager.
Seven years on, things have barely evolved for Ranieri; Leicester’s calling was one out of necessity, to instill a wiser head to do away from the politically rash and brazen Nigel Pearson. When Chelsea replaced him with Jose Mourinho in 2004, it seemed to confirm the spent force narrative surrounding Ranieri. 11 years on, Ranieri is sitting atop the Premier League table while Mourinho regularly fields questions related to crises.
A win over Chelsea for Ranieri would be poetic justice, but Chelsea looked much better in their win over Norwich this past weekend and things could get better for the Blues before they embark on their short, 100 mile trip. A win for the Foxes will have more odds than a Chelsea win, but Leicester have been fighting the odds in almost every game this season. And Chelsea also have a Champions League game during the week to contend with leading up to the game.
Next up for Ranieri’s Foxes is a Merseyside double header. On 19th December, they travel to Everton’s Goodison Park before making another trip to Liverpool a week later. As it stands, both Everton and Liverpool have made reasonable starts to their respective seasons without pulling big trees. Both clubs have had hiccups throughout the season, and haven’t managed to consistently produce results.
Roberto Martinez’s Toffees managed two 2–2 draws with Leicester last season. In the corresponding fixture last season, Everton just about managed to hold the Foxes after a late Matthew Upson own goal snatched three points from Leicester’s grasp. However, history will bear heavy on the Foxes as their last win at Goodison Park came 30 years ago, when Gary Lineker was in the Everton line-up and Gary McAllister scored the winning goal.
Meanwhile, Liverpool’s progress under the new Jurgen Klopp regime has been well-documented, and one that secured Leicester’s place at the top of the table for at least a week. Liverpool produced their finest display yet under Klopp against Manchester City, and their morale-boosting away wins at Chelsea and Manchester City will make them ominous opponents for the Foxes to welcome at home.
Last season, Brendan Rodgers’ side outplayed Leicester in the corresponding fixture, and the fact the Foxes have lost both their Boxing Day home fixtures against the Reds in 1977 and 1994 means that, like Everton, Liverpool will seemingly have a historical upper hand, but how much does history count in the modern game?
Leicester’s final game of the calendar year sees them entertain the might of Manchester City to the King Power. A loss written all over it if you go by pre-season prejudices, but Manuel Pellegrini’s City have veered between the brilliant and the abject on more occasions than one this season. Any chance of a Leicester win depends on what version of the Citizens turn up on that day.
While the Sky Blues have already suffered hidings this season at the hands of Spurs and Liverpool, they have handed a few hidings of their own to the likes of Crystal Palace, Bournemouth, Newcastle and Sunderland. Leicester, with their style of play suited to more proactive opponents like City where they allow their opponents lots of possession, could take a leaf out of Liverpool and Spurs’ books when they take on City.
The Foxes have been an effective pressing unit this season, and by recovering the ball in advanced areas of the pitch, they counter attack with pace and trickery, which have been enough to put almost half the league to submission this season. Liverpool, this past weekend, took apart City with their pressing schemes and clinical finishing and with Leicester boasting the in-form Vardy in their ranks, a win looks good value should City not turn up.
And the game being at their home will have enough incentive for their partisan fans to create an atmosphere deserving of Leicester’s monumental year of 2015. A win over City will just be the icing on the cake everybody at the club will aim for, and judging by their form thus far, anything seems possible.
A tough run of fixtures await Leicester City, but with the club safe in the knowledge they wouldn’t be involved in a relegation dogfight come the season’s end, the six games against some of England’s elite clubs will provide the Foxes an opportunity to enjoy the festive period with a sense of occasion. Top of the league or not, Leicester will prove to be far more difficult opponents than envisaged at the season’s start. Whether they remain top come 2016 is difficult to gauge, but they will still be in the thereabouts.