Football: Fun's over for 1st-time EPL winners Leicester, return to status quo

Big boys dominate again and struggling champions must beef up squad to avoid fall

LONDON • Leicester's fairy-tale Premier League title win made 2016 the year of the underdogs in English football, but as 2017 approaches, the giants are emerging from their slumbers.

A team of misfits and cast-offs marshalled by twinkly eyed Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, Leicester pulled off a 5,000-1 triumph last season that was arguably one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport.

It can be said that the Foxes' first-ever top-division triumph has brought about a breath of fresh air to football supporters because it is easy to feel jaded about top-flight football in 2016.

It has moved so far from its local, blue-collar origins, and its devotion to money is troubling - clubs are all too ready to accept millions of dollars from dubious oil men and post-Soviet oligarchs.

Fans lament its lost past. It has become too corporate, they say, too capitalistic, too corrupt.

The Foxes’ top scorer Jamie Vardy, who also won the Premier League Player of the Year gong, is finding the going tougher now. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Players join the same big clubs, the same teams contest the Champions League every season.

But Leicester's uplifting story suggests there remains a place in the modern game for teamwork, and good coaching, and helping each other, and - perhaps most importantly - having fun.

By contrast with many top-level football players, Leicester's players seem to be enjoying themselves.

"Jamie (Vardy) and myself, we have fun during matches," midfielder Riyad Mahrez once said.

As 2016 dawned, Leicester were in second place, below leaders Arsenal on goal difference, their surprisingly high placement seen as an aberration caused by the inconsistency of the superpowers.

And as the big guns continued to misfire, so Leicester continued to win - 1-0 at Tottenham, 2-0 at home to Liverpool, a stunning 3-1 victory at Manchester City.

By spring, the unthinkable had become thinkable and although teams belatedly realised they had to be taken seriously, the Foxes went on a run of five gritty wins, carrying them to within sight of glory.

Tottenham had emerged as Leicester's biggest rivals, but Mauricio Pochettino's exciting young team could not last the pace.

They drew 2-2 at outgoing champions Chelsea, who sacked Ranieri in 2004. Watching the game on television at the home of striker Vardy, Leicester's players erupted into joyous celebrations captured on left- back Christian Fuchs' smartphone and beamed around the world.

It was the most surreal title win England had ever seen.


Jamie (Vardy) and myself, we have fun during matches.

RIYAD MAHREZ, Leicaster and Algeria midfielder, on the positive attitude during their historic EPL-winning season.

Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor, sang on the pitch at the King Power Stadium.

Former Leicester striker Gary Lineker presented BBC's flagship "Match of the Day" highlights programme wearing only a pair of white boxer shorts after betting they would not do it.

But just as Ranieri predicted, the big clubs flexed their muscles in the close-season transfer window and as the Foxes faltered, so a cast of superstars set about re-establishing the old order.

"It's more difficult than last season," he said - prophetically, as it would transpire - of his side's title chances on the eve of this season.

Spending rocketed past £1 billion (S$1.78 billion) for the first time as the big clubs lavished the proceeds of new £8 billion TV deals in an unprecedented splurge.

Manchester United smashed the world transfer record to bring French midfielder Paul Pogba back to the club from Juventus in a heavily trailed £89 million deal.

Manchester City spent big on John Stones and Leroy Sane, Arsenal on Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, Chelsea on old boy David Luiz and Leicester linch-pin N'Golo Kante, Liverpool on Sadio Mane.

The biggest incoming personalities, however, pitched up in the dug-outs.

City finally lured Pep Guardiola to the Etihad Stadium from Bayern Munich, enabling him to renew his sulphurous rivalry with Jose Mourinho, who alighted across town at United following his sacking by Chelsea.

But both Mourinho and Guardiola have been eclipsed by new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, who has catapulted the west London stars to the top of the tree by Christmas.

Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool, Arsene Wenger's Arsenal and League Cup winners City lead the pursuit, with Spurs and United close behind.

Leicester, meanwhile, have been dragged into a relegation fight, despite cruising into the last 16 of the Champions League, and Ranieri has decided it is time to spend in the January transfer window.

Out of his six summer signings, only one, striker Islam Slimani, can be classed as a success and even he has not been a perfect fit.

The Italian defends his recruitment process and explained that some players need a while to adapt to the Premier League, citing the example of Mahrez, who was gradually integrated into English football after arriving from Le Havre in 2014.

"If he needed six or seven months, imagine how it is for the others," said Ranieri.

Which is fair enough. The problem is that the sub-par performances of Leicester's established players this season suggest the club needed summer reinforcements who were ready for immediate deployment in the Premier League.

Ranieri hinted that improved defensive options may be on his January shopping list and it would be a boon if Wilfred Ndidi turned out to be a ready-made replacement for Kante.

But the Genk midfielder is only 20. Still, Leicester are close to sealing a transfer of around £15 million for him and will be thankful Nigeria have not qualified for next month's Africa Cup of Nations.

Ranieri's side also look set to be affected by that tournament more severely than any other Premier League club as they are likely to lose Ghana's Daniel Amartey as well as Algeria's Mahrez and Slimani.

As it is, the Foxes' fairy tale has ended, and it remains to be seen how impending new recruits next month can help Leicester start a new chapter of their sequel.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 27, 2016, with the headline 'Fun's over, return to status quo'. Print Edition | Subscribe