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Leicester: Title contender, or just pretending?

18 January 2016, 18:21

London — A bet that could see former England great Gary Lineker on TV in his underwear is not a normal wager.

But how brave, or foolish, was the former Leicester striker to say he would host the first "Match of the Day" next season in his underpants if his old club won the Premier League?

The naked truth is that Lineker could be heading for an embarrassing Saturday night.

After narrowly avoiding relegation at the end of last season, Leicester hired a new manager in 64-year-old Claudio Ranieri, a popular coach with a wealth of experience but a dearth of silverware. Add the modest budget for transfers, and it's not surprising the team was firmly marked down as a prime candidate for the drop.

Instead, Leicester has spent weeks at the top of the world's richest league, and only a goal difference of three is currently keeping the club in second place below Arsenal. If not for a missed penalty in Saturday's draw at Aston Villa, the Foxes could well be two points clear of the chasing pack.

Can they keep this going and create one of the biggest shocks in English football?

The simple answer is "yes."

The arguments against them are predictable and well-rehearsed. Leicester has no real Premier League pedigree, no star players and no prospect of any big-name signings. It's hard to imagine a top international player joining over the next two weeks and telling reporters "ever since I was a kid, it was my dream to play for Leicester."

And in 30 years as a coach, Ranieri's trophy cabinet is certainly not cluttered. An Italian Cup in 1996 from his time with Fiorentina and the 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia pretty much fills it.

However, none of this fazes a well-drilled Leicester side that is thoroughly enjoying its football and is free of expectations.

And that's just the point. Leicester has none of the pressure that's now ratcheting up on Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United as players in the glamour clubs head toward the business end of the season.

And a team that plays without fear is a dangerous opponent.

Leicester showed no fear when it hosted Premier League champion Chelsea, beating the Blues 2-1 in an impressive performance. The millionaire players of both Manchester clubs have been held to draws, and fourth-place Tottenham was beaten at White Hart Lane last week. Among the title contenders, only Arsenal has so far inflicted a defeat on Leicester.

On a purely footballing level, Leicester is good enough to win the league.

Arsenal, City and United fans found it amusing when "little Leicester" — Ranieri's words — went to the top of the Premier League on Nov. 21 after 13 games.

Nine matches and two months later, they're not laughing any more.

Leicester is still up with the pacesetters and showing no signs of the sudden implosion and descent to mid-table mediocrity that was so widely predicted. What's more, the argument that "this has never been done before" carries even less weight.

Nobody had scored in 11 consecutive Premier League matches before Leicester's Jamie Vardy completed the feat in late November.

No team had been in last place in the Premier League on one Christmas Day and then top on Dec. 25 the following year until Leicester managed it last month.

While Vardy has not added to his 15 goals since mid-December, in large part because of a groin problem that has since required surgery, that hasn't prevented Leicester from winning matches.

Supported by attacking midfielder Riyad Mahrez, arguably the other revelation of the Premier League this season along with Vardy, Leicester's attack carries real menace — as the stats show.

Forget Arsenal's Mesut Ozil, United's Wayne Rooney or City's Sergio Aguero. The Premier League's Player Index, essentially a ranking of individual performance across 471 registered players, has 13-goal Mahrez in first place and Vardy in second.

Offseason signing N'Golo Kante has been a combative, driving force in midfield, while the neat passing and movement going forward is well understood by all the players. Derided as "the Tinkerman" during his years at Chelsea because of his frequent changes in players and tactics, Ranieri has found a style of play and a starting line-up that has changed little since the start of the season.

That continuity has been an important part of the team's success. It's also one of the reasons why Leicester might yet defy gravity when the season ends.

Whether it's Chelsea, United or City, the Premier League has often been won by sides that have long cut their rivals adrift and cruised to the title.

There is no sign of that happening this year in what is a wide open — if not slightly bizarre — contest that finds pre-season title favorite Chelsea talking about relegation.

Clearly, there is plenty of daylight between "can" and "will'" when it comes to winning the Premier League.

And Ranieri and his players are certainly not getting carried away.

"If 'little Leicester' is looked down (on), it's normal," Ranieri said last week. "It's not normal what Leicester are doing. It's unbelievable. It's fantastic and our fans are dreaming. The fans must continue to dream — we must continue to work hard."

If they succeed, it will be very embarrassing for English football's biggest clubs, their pampered players and their global sponsors.

But their embarrassment will be nothing compared to Lineker's, as he is watched by a TV audience of several million in his underpants.

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- AP


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