LONDON (AFP) - After Leicester City were crowned Premier League champions for the first time on Monday, AFP Sport recalls how the most astonishing title triumph in the history of English football unfolded.
Within 25 minutes of the new season getting underway, it became apparent something special was brewing at Leicester as goals from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, foreshadowing their brilliant campaigns, set up a 4-2 win over Sunderland on manager Claudio Ranieri's debut. A 2-1 victory at West Ham United was followed by a 1-1 draw at home to Tottenham Hotspur, which left Leicester in the top four just months after they narrowly avoided relegation. The table at the end of August had an unusual look, with champions Chelsea struggling after defeats against high-flying Crystal Palace and Manchester City, who climbed to the top after four successive wins, while eventual challengers Tottenham went four games without a win.
There was an early sign of the character and spirit that would come to epitomise Leicester's unexpected rise as they scored three times in the last 18 minutes to turn a two-goal deficit into a 3-2 win over Aston Villa before rescuing a 2-2 draw at Stoke City after trailing by two a week later. Arsenal ended Leicester's six-match unbeaten run as Alexis Sanchez's treble inspired a 5-2 win at the King Power Stadium. Manchester United swept to the top with three wins in the month, including a 3-1 victory over bitter rivals Liverpool.
Leicester were beginning to hit their stride and they climbed to third after wins over Norwich City, Palace and West Bromwich Albion, all featuring goals from emerging striker Vardy. After thrashing Newcastle United and Bournemouth 6-1 and 5-1 respectively, Manchester City ended the month in pole position ahead of second-place Arsenal, who reeled off four consecutive wins including a 3-0 drubbing of Manchester United. Astonishingly, troubled Chelsea were languishing just above the relegation zone after Liverpool's 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge.
Vardy wrote his name into Premier League history by scoring for the 11th successive game in a 1-1 draw against Manchester United - eclipsing the record set across two seasons by former United forward Ruud van Nistelrooy. Vardy's heroics kept Leicester in touch with leaders Manchester City, whose 4-1 home humbling at the hands of Liverpool exposed flaws that would ruin their title bid. Tottenham's challenge, fuelled by the goals of Harry Kane, was emerging after big wins over Villa and West Ham lifted them to fifth.
Vardy's record-breaking streak ended at Swansea, but Mahrez ensured that was no problem as the Algeria winger's hat-trick clinched a 3-0 victory that was followed by a statement 2-1 win over Chelsea. It proved the end of the road for Chelsea manager Jose Mourinho, who was sacked days later after losing the support of his squad. However, Christmas brought no festive cheer for second-place Leicester, who lost 1-0 at Liverpool before being held to a 0-0 draw by Manchester City. It was Arsenal who finished 2015 in top spot, with a 2-1 victory over City the highlight of their ascent.
When the new year opened with a goalless draw at home to Bournemouth, the doubters who expected Leicester to fade away began to raise their voices again. But Ranieri's men silenced the critics when Robert Huth's late goal secured a 1-0 win at Tottenham and they seized first place with a 3-0 victory against Stoke. Arsenal were once again squandering their potential as they dropped to third after three games without a win culminating in a painful 1-0 home defeat against Chelsea.
A defining period for Leicester started with Vardy netting a stunning brace in a 2-0 win over Liverpool, before Huth scored twice in a 3-1 win at Manchester City that erased any fears the feisty underdogs would lose their bite. A painful 2-1 loss at Arsenal, in which defender Danny Simpson was sent off before Danny Welbeck bagged a last-gasp winner, cut Leicester's lead to two points. But crucially, Leonardo Ulloa's late winner against Norwich restored morale and kept them ahead of Tottenham, who had chalked up four consecutive wins including a 2-1 success at City that effectively ended the hosts' challenge.
An ability to grind out wins when not at your best is the hallmark of any champion and Leicester displayed that trait on a regular basis as three 1-0 victories, over Watford, Newcastle and Palace, increased their lead over Tottenham to five points. Mauricio Pochettino's men had been hamstrung by a 1-0 loss at West Ham and a 2-2 draw against Arsenal, who had been reduced to 10 men before Sanchez's late equaliser. Despite escaping White Hart Lane unscathed, the Gunners, surprisingly beaten 2-1 at home by Swansea, trailed Leicester by 11 points.
Dispatching Southampton and Sunderland in typically gritty fashion moved Leicester to within sight of the finish line before a rare moment of adversity in a 2-2 draw against West Ham. With Vardy dismissed after receiving a second yellow card for diving, the Hammers scored twice in the closing moments to take a 2-1 lead, only for Ulloa to convert a dubious penalty with virtually the last kick. Ulloa then filled in admirably for the suspended Vardy with a brace in a 4-0 rout of Swansea. Tottenham had to respond with a victory against West Brom to keep pace with the leaders, but despite the gift of a Craig Dawson own goal, they were pegged back by Dawson's second-half equaliser in a 1-1 draw that left Leicester on the brink.
A 1-1 draw against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday put Leicester's title party on hold with the fairytale completed when Tottenham drew 2-2 at Chelsea 24 hours later.