No one fancied Leicester City to be at the top of the English Premier League (EPL) on Christmas, half way through the season. The Foxes have surprised everyone and beaten expectations.
Five of the last six Premier League champions have been top on December 25, with Liverpool in 2013/14 the only exception when they ran out of steam in the final months, pipped at the post by a resurgent Manchester City.
This is perhaps the most exciting season of the EPL ever because of its unpredictability. Everyone wants to know what Leicester’s secret is. The Foxes’ keeper Casper Schmeichel told Skysports News that it’s down to the shrewd management of their manager, Claudio Ranieri.
He said when the new manager came in, he maintained the same back room staff and the team that won seven of their last nine matches last season when they beat relegation. Ranieri just bought a few players to add depth to the team. Their style is to press high and they play with passion, power and energy.
Leicester’s next two matches are against Liverpool (today) and Manchester City (Tuesday). These are difficult matches on any given day. Previously, we could have said Leicester will drop points and give advantage to second-placed Arsenal whose next fixtures are against Southampton (today) and Bournemouth (Monday).
But Leicester won’t be knocked off their perch easily now that they have grown in confidence and self belief. Predict against them at your own peril. No defence has stopped Leicester this season. Only injuries to Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the Premier League’s current top goal scorers, would derail Leicester.
But Leicester are not the only previously relegation strugglers in scintillating form this season. Crystal Palace, Watford, Stoke City, Bournemouth and West Ham have performed exceptionally well. In fact, Arsenal should be wary of Bournemouth on Monday because the new comers have beaten Chelsea and Man United. Similarly, Chelsea should be wary of Watford who beat Liverpool in their last match.
The gap in quality between squads has thinned if not evaporated all together. Teams like Stoke City have recruited the likes of Krkic Bojan, Ibrahim Affelay both ex-Barcelona and Sheridan Shaquiri previously of Bayern Munich and have brought quality from these big clubs into the squad to a point where Stoke can now humble expensively assembled sides like Man City as we witnessed a fortnight ago.
In fact, Man United, frail as they are at the moment, could suffer the same fate today when they play Stoke. There is instability at United due to uncharacteristic losses which have been attributed to manager Van Gaal. I don’t agree though. Mea culpa Fletcher and all the Chelsea fans for awarding your team a Charity shield that Arsenal won. Atate Manja remember the snubbing of handshakes between managers in that game? Was it the festive mood getting the better of me? I thought so!