English Premiership

Pluck and pizza the Leicester secret

RIYAD MAHREZ (lcfc.com)
RIYAD MAHREZ (lcfc.com)

London - To fully appreciate the implausibility of Leicester City's astonishing rise to the top of the Premier League, wind the clock back 12 months.

A year ago, Leicester were at the foot of the table, five points from safety with 10 points from 16 matches and looking dead certs for an immediate return to the Championship.

Now they are top, with 35 points from 16 games, and making a mockery of pre-season odds of 2,000-1 by mounting the most unlikely title challenge in the recent history of the English game.

"It's a magical time," said manager Claudio Ranieri after Monday's 2-1 home win over his old club Chelsea.

"We must continue to work hard because I don't want to wake up. I want to continue to dream with our fans."

The victory over Chelsea, courtesy of goals from top scorer Jamie Vardy and Algerian dangerman Riyad Mahrez, typified Leicester's approach.

Their honest, hard-working style has charmed rival fans and journalists alike -- "refreshing" was the buzzword on Tuesday's British sports pages -- and their success is also a personal triumph for Ranieri.

Ranieri was derisively labelled 'The Tinkerman' during his four years at Chelsea, due to his habit of rotating his team, and his appointment by Leicester in July following Nigel Pearson's sacking unleashed a tide of mockery.

Former England striker Gary Lineker, probably Leicester's most well-known alumnus, summed up the disdain when he tweeted: "Claudio Ranieri? Really?"

"I had mixed thoughts, to be honest," former Leicester captain Steve Walsh told AFP. "But he's 'tinkered about' and added some good tactical things, so it's worked out really well."

The genial Italian, 64, has been converting cynics to admirers with each victory, all the while maintaining the irreverent tone that made him a popular figure during his first spell in England between 2000 and 2004.

Takeaway pizza has become the currency with which he rewards his players for clean sheets, while he cited a song by local rock band Kasabian as the inspiration for the opening-day win over Sunderland.

On the pitch, the indefatigable Vardy and the jinking Mahrez have been symbols of Leicester's revival, with Ranieri's side typically defending deep and springing forward at devastating speed on the break.

Vardy, a £1 million recruit from Fleetwood Town in 2012, has scored 15 league goals, while Mahrez, signed from Le Havre last year for just £400,000, has 11 goals and seven assists.

Close-season signings such as N'Golo Kante and Christian Fuchs have slotted in seamlessly, but another important factor has been continuity.

Leicester heaved themselves clear of danger last season with seven wins in their last nine games and Ranieri has retained Pearson's back-room staff and kept faith with most of the players he inherited.

He is resolute that neither Vardy nor Mahrez will leave in January, declaring that they "don't have a price", but the club's Thai owners are likely to have their resolve tested in that regard.

Ranieri may not be entirely serious when he says that he is not looking beyond the 40-point margin traditionally required to avoid relegation, but a challenging run of fixtures now awaits.

Leicester have not played any of the current top seven away from home yet and face trips to Everton, Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur in the next month, as well as a visit from Manchester City.

Premier League history carries ominous precedents, with Newcastle United (2001-02), Leeds United (1999-2000) and Aston Villa (1998-99) among the teams to have topped the table at Christmas, only to fall away.

Hull City avoided relegation by a point in 2009 despite having been sixth on December 25, while Blackpool were eighth at the turn of the year in 2010-11, only to go down five months later.

For now, at least, Leicester are on cloud nine and as a lengthening list of vanquished opponents can testify, they look to be a match for anyone.

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Liverpool
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Results
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Chelsea 3
Watford 0
Sat 04 Jul 20
Wolverhampton Wanderers 0
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Logs
Team
P
W
PTS
1. Liverpool
32
28
86
2. Manchester City
32
21
66
3. Leicester City
33
17
58
4. Chelsea
33
17
57