The Big Match

Football: Leicester ready to step on the big stage

Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrating after scoring his second and Leicester's third goal during the match between Leicester City and Swansea on April 24, 2016.
Leicester City's Leonardo Ulloa celebrating after scoring his second and Leicester's third goal during the match between Leicester City and Swansea on April 24, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

Foxes can seal title at Old Trafford with win, but Red Devils may prove tough nut to crack

Leicester City's past encompasses 132 years and 111 seasons of league football. Now they are 90 minutes away from making history.

The ultimate underdogs need only three points to be crowned champions and it would be symbolic of the way they have upset the established order if those three points come at the home of the Premier League's most successful club.

When the fixture list was released, Louis van Gaal may have imagined this was the game with which he would clinch the title. Instead, Manchester United require victory to maintain realistic hopes of a top-four finish.

Judging by the way neutrals are enjoying Leicester's exploits, that would be an unpopular victory, even if Claudio Ranieri's team could become champions without playing should Chelsea beat Tottenham on Monday.

They deserve to be able to celebrate it on such a stage, however. This promises to be a wonderful occasion, if not necessarily an action-packed encounter.

While Leicester recorded their season's biggest win, 4-0 against Swansea, last week, they have kept six clean sheets in seven games, United four in five league matches.

Each have won when they have prevented their opponents from scoring. The first goal promises to be crucial.

They have similar defensive records of late, but contrasting methods. United have had the third highest share of possession, Leicester the third lowest.

That has often enabled them to pick off opponents on the counter-attack but their fastest runner, Jamie Vardy, remains suspended. The electric winger Jeffrey Schlupp, who came into the side against Swansea, could be crucial.

In contrast,van Gaal, after forever talking about his fondness for fast forwards, has finally found a way of fielding three, in Anthony Martial, Marcus Rashford and Jesse Lingard.

Yet Leicester, who defend deep and with their full-backs tucked in, are well equipped to counter their strengths.

Van Gaal has recalled Marouane Fellaini to add set-piece menace but Leicester, in the towering Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, may be capable of stopping the Belgian.

United have moved Wayne Rooney back into midfield to act as the playmaker but Leicester have the division's most prolific ball-winner, in N'Golo Kante. These teams threaten to cancel each other out.

But they are opposites. Leicester's season has been a triumph of teamwork. Even with the former club-record buy Leonardo Ulloa standing in for the banned Vardy, they paid around £29 million (S$56.9 million) for their probable starting 11 tomorrow. Martial could cost United more than twice that sum himself.

It is one of the many ways that Leicester's progress has been so remarkable. They have confounded every expectation, from the initial predictions they would be relegated, and surpassed anything that, individually or collectively, they have achieved before.

Now they are one result away from the greatest shock ever in English football.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 30, 2016, with the headline 'Leicester ready to step on the big stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe