Monday, 15 February 2016

Why I want Leicester City to win the Premier League

Like a lot of folks, I've been following this year's English Premier League title race more avidly than usual, for the simple reason that, in a lot of ways, the table's been turned upside down. There's still about a third of the season left, so any of the traditional powers could reassert themselves, but the main highlight has been how Premiership minnows Leicester City have managed to carve out a place for themselves at the top, after having come so close last year to being relegated.

At the moment there are four title contenders: Leicester, Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal and Manchester City. Winning would be a great narrative for any of these teams, although to different degrees (oddly enough, in the order that I've listed them, which also happens to be their ranking in the league as of this past weekend). But I'm more invested in Leicester winning, for a number of reasons.

The first is the fairytale aspect of it all. As I said, they came within a few games of being relegated last season, and managed to save themselves in the last seven matches of the season. I think everybody was expecting them to go down this season, but instead they've carried on their form and now sit, quite improbably, in first place. More importantly, if they win the league, this will be their first top-flight title ever - their highest placing was second, in the 1920s - and this will be the first time since 1995 that a less-fancied team wins the title (Blackburn being the champions that year).

Another reason I'm hoping Leicester wins this season is Claudio Ranieri, the manager they hired for the start of this title campaign. For years, he had a reputation in English football as the "tinkerman", a kind of buffoonish figure who couldn't leave well enough alone. He was the manager of Chelsea when Roman Abramovich bought the club, and was let go somewhat shabbily after having guided them to second place.

After leaving Chelsea, Ranieri bounced around Europe, including stints back at home in Italy, but his star was possibly at its lowest ebb ever when Leicester hired him, as he'd just come off a disastrous four-match spell in charge of the Greek national team. He'd just overseen Greece failing to qualify for the upcoming European Championships, and guided the Greeks to two losses (home and away) against the Faroe Islands, a country of about 57,000 way out in the North Sea whose main claim to fame is puffins and sheep. So folks in England were justifiably apprehensive when he was hired, but I'm pleased to see that he's confounded all the doubters and rescued his reputation.

The third reason I'm hoping Leicester win it all is their main striker, Jamie Vardy. He was plying his trade further down the divisions not long ago, at the likes of Stocksbridge Park Steels and Fleetwood Town, but from there has helped fire Leicester into first, while also picking up a record for scoring in the most consecutive games since Manchester United's Ruud van Nistelrooy.

Admittedly Vardy's had something of a checkered past, having been tagged for assault and racial abuse, but the signs seem to point to a real rehabilitation, which can only have helped his focus on his way to this record. Apparently there's even a screenwriter following him around, with the intention of writing a Jamie Vardy biopic.

Of course, Vardy's achievement isn't meant to overshadow the rest of his teammates, including Riyad Mahrez, the French-born Algerian international player who's also emerged from the obscurity of the lower leagues to make a name for himself, or Robert Huth, a German defender who also seemed to disappear after leaving Chelsea.

So these are the reasons I'm rooting for Leicester, and why I'm sure large parts of the English public are too (apart from fans of local rivals Coventry, Derby County and Nottingham Forest, of course). In fact, my cousin in Italy tells me that people there are following Leicester's exploits too, so it wouldn't be off base to assume that a lot of Europe is behind the plucky underdogs, who have, of course, shown themselves to be contenders this season.

Sure, Spurs stand to win their first Premier League trophy, and their first top-flight trophy since 1961, which would be an amazing achievement too. And Arsenal, if they win, will take home their first title in 12 years, since their "Invincible" season. Man City, meanwhile, would cement their place as the top club in Manchester over hated rivals United, while also giving their outgoing coach Manuel Pellegrini a last gift before Pep Guardiola (formerly of Barcelona and Bayern Munich) takes the reins.

But Leicester would be a win for (most of) the rest of England. In Soccernomics, Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanski note that titles in Europe typically go to one or two of the big cities. London and Manchester have shared almost all of the titles in the Premier League days (Blackburn is just 20 miles from Manchester), and that ever harder for smaller teams, from smaller cities, to break in. Leicester winning would spread the honors around, just as their success is (surely) being financed by an epic TV rights deal that seems to have raised all Premier League clubs, rather than just the top two or three.

So it's Leicester for me this year - surely they'll collapse again next season, and Pep Guardiola will launch Manchester City to a new period of dominance. But in the meantime, I'm reveling in a Premier League season where just about anything can happen, and has.