LONDON (AP) Leicester had little to celebrate last Christmas. Languishing in last place in the Premier League, the team was facing instant relegation back to the second tier.
Now Leicester is looking down on everyone.
From propping up the league, Leicester has surged to the pinnacle inside 12 months and rivals are trying to figure out how to replicate their feat. It has not been accomplished by a spending splurge but through astute bargain buys far expecting expectations and a managerial change that had most pundits forecasting a relegation struggle.
The turnaround is as astonishing and unforeseen as Chelsea’s collapse from champions to a team now hovering above the relegation zone. When Leicester beat the champions earlier this month it no longer seemed such a shock, although it cost Jose Mourinho his Chelsea job.
The tale of the two clubs and their contrasting fortunes is the biggest surprise in the history of the Premier League.
“I don’t know how it’s possible,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri reflected this week. “I think it’s a fantastic achievement. If I understood very well, never at this time was Leicester top of the league.”
This team, based in an east Midlands city better known for its textiles industry and rugby side, has never won the top prize in English soccer. Not in the post-1992 Premier League era or any time stretching back into the 19th century. The only major honor Leicester has ever collected is the League Cup, with the third and most recent triumph coming in 2000.
Aware how close Leicester came to being relegated last season under Nigel Pearson – before a stunning late revival that was not enough to keep him in a job – Ranieri has cooled fan expectations. The target for this season remains reaching the 40-point mark that should guarantee a place in the Premier League next season. That can be achieved at the halfway point on Saturday when a win at Liverpool would lift Leicester to 41 points.
As Leicester has remained among the front-runners throughout the season, the widespread expectation has been it was a matter of if – not when – Leicester starts to slip down the standings. Two matches from the halfway point and everyone is still waiting.
The whole season has been one long mission in defying the critics. Leicester was considered foolish for plucking Ranieri from the ranks of unemployed coaches to replace Pearson in July. It had been 11 years since he had managed in England with Chelsea – during which he was often labeled “The Tinkerman” for constantly changing the starting lineup – and he had been out of work since an embarrassing spell in charge of the Greece national team.
“I am waiting for when people change my nickname from `Tinkerman’ to `Thinkerman,”‘ quipped Ranieri, whose avuncular and calm demeanor contrasts with the league’s more erratic coaches.
One thing Ranieri does not own up to thinking about is lifting the trophy for the world’s richest soccer competition in May.
“I think we aren’t ready to fight to be champions,” he said, even as Leicester sits two points in front of Arsenal and six ahead of Manchester City.
In the offseason, Leicester’s net spending of around $30 million was one sixth of Manchester City’s outlay.
“We don’t have the high quality like City, Arsenal, but we fight together,” Ranieri said. “Every ball for us is the last ball. That’s what we believe.”
And unlike Manchester United – which has spent around $400 million in the last 18 months but is only fifth – Leicester has goal-scorers on a hot streak.
Neymar, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo might be the world’s most valuable attackers. But none of them have scored as many league goals this season in Spain as Jamie Vardy has for Leicester with his tally of 15.
The only reason Vardy had made international headlines before this season started was for being filmed using racist language toward a Japanese man in a casino. The striker apologized and found the perfect way to show himself in a better light on the field: Breaking a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches.
Not bad for a player who only cost Leicester 1 million pounds or 1/80th of Gareth Bale‘s world-record fee when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013.
And yet Vardy’s transfer did represent a gamble in 2012 for Leicester, which paid a record fee for a non-league player in a country which has 92 professional teams across four leagues to pluck talent from.
At one point, the 28-year-old Vardy was only earning 30 pounds ($45) as he combined muddy pitches with manual labor as he played in front of a few hundred fans at best. Now he is being valued at anything up to $50 million and linked with Chelsea and Manchester United, which are both struggling for goals and desperate for such a prolific target man.
“I pinch myself every day,” Vardy said. “Everyone knows the road I have had in the game, and how I have managed to get myself to where I am today.”
The Foxes are not relying on Vardy for goals. They also have Riyad Mahrez, whose 13 goals make him the joint-second best scorer in the league. The Algeria international was another unknown quantity when he was signed for only 400,000 pounds from Le Havre in January 2014.
What would destroy the dream is if Leicester cashed in on their success and sold Vardy and Mahrez in the January transfer window, ripping the heart out of the team.
“We make the city proud and that is a very good feeling for us so we have to carry on,” Mahrez said.
In recent years Leicester’s global claim to fame had been discovering the battle-scarred skeleton of a 15th-century monarch under a parking lot in 2012. King Richard III was buried in pomp earlier this year in a grave in the city’s cathedral.
But it is another king, The King Power stadium – named after the Thai duty free company controlled by Leicester’s owners – that is now capturing global attention.
“The city has only just got over burying a king and we had eyes of the world on us in that period and we believed it couldn’t get any better,” Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby said by telephone. “Well it just did.”
And it could get even better if there’s an open-top bus parade come May to exhibit the Premier League trophy.
“I haven’t yet wanted to pencil the date in my diary because that might just be tempting fate,” Soulsby said. “But I have made a mental note.”