Little Big League
For all its faults and the criticism it generates, the international break in soccer does, at the very least, afford us the opportunity to survey the first third of the European domestic leagues. A cursory look at the tables as they stand now reveal mostly what you’d expect with even a rudimentary knowledge of how these things tend to go: Barcelona leads in Spain, tracked closely by both Madrid squads; Bayern Munich is on top in Germany with the kind of goal differential that is reminiscent of a college student’s bank account (which is to say, impressive for the soccer team, and dire for the student); Paris Saint-Germain is looking to have the French title wrapped up by Christmas, when its focus turns to completing an undefeated domestic season; Inter and Roma are sharing some space with Fiorentina, which is awfully (suspiciously?) charitable of them; and the two Manchester clubs are firmly slotted in the top four in England, with Arsenal and Tottenham closely trailing.
Leading that latter group, however, is an unheralded and unexpected group, with a Jamaican international serving as captain, who are only two seasons removed from promotion. While not the most desolate of England’s clubs, Leicester City is not among its notable fat cats either. With an incendiary scorer, a host of heady midfielders, the keeper son of a keeper man and a well-traveled manager, however, King Power Stadium may yet see meaningful continental matches and, with more than a bit of luck, a trophy.
So, to remove the veil, this is what the top of the Barclays Premier League table looks like, as of this writing:
With a 3-0 triumph over lowly Newcastle on Saturday, as well as losses from Man City and Arsenal, Leicester City has found itself at the top in England, for the first time in its Premier League history. It isn’t supposed to be like this, not for this club, in this day and age. This is a team which spent five years in the second tier of the English soccer pyramid before earning promotion in 2014, and although it has only endured a single season below the second tier since 1894, Leicester City is not the kind of club you look at in FIFA or Football Manager, for instance, and say, “Alright, on with it then.”
With an estimated wage bill of just under £37m, which is enough to change the cleats of Chelsea’s substitutes, Leicester City had the second-lowest payroll of any Premier League team last season, ahead of only Burnley, who got relegated. Though there were several notable transfers who joined the team – Danish national Kasper Schmeichel, son of former Man United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel and a spellbinding netminder himself, the Austrian Christian Fuchs and Swiss national Gökhan Inler among them – Leicester was in no way expected to contend for even a spot in European competition, let alone the Premier League title. Now, they are doing both.
Occurrences like this – not that there’s anything really like this, but bear with me – are always a team effort, but on the surface, the major focal point has been Jamie Vardy’s rapid ascendance. With a goal just after halftime against Newcastle, Vardy has now scored in ten consecutive Premier League games, equaling the record Ruud van Nistelrooy set in 2003 (Of note: the English record belongs to Irishman Jimmy Dunne, who scored in 12 straight for Sheffield United in 1931-’32). Because soccer has a way of toying with us, Vardy’s chance to break the record will arrive in City’s next match, Saturday against van Nistelrooy’s former club, Manchester United.
Perhaps most notable of the summer additions was the former Greece manager, Claudio Ranieri. I say “former Greece manager” only because that was the most recent stop in his seemingly endless world tour; among other exotic destinations, the Italian has been at the head of Chelsea, Inter Milan, Roma, Juventus, Atlético Madrid, Monaco and many other teams in various states of financial solvency. More often than not, it seems, he has acted as the bookend to an historic period in a club’s history, arriving just before José Mourinho at Chelsea, just before Valencia’s best European finishes and just after Juventus’ darkest period.
He has been a caretaker, a seat-warmer and an ostensible custodian for someone else’s messes, all while earning the nickname “The Tinkerer.” Now, with City, Ranieri has the chance to truly shape a club and lead it through its gilded age. His motivational tactics are without parallel: in the spirit of David Blatt taking his Cleveland Cavaliers bowling last season, Ranieri promised a pizza party to his club if they managed to keep a clean sheet, complete with 12 bottles of champagne. Upon defeating Crystal Palace 1-0 in September, he followed through on that promise.
But winning the Premier League isn’t all pizza and bubbly. Leicester City has benefited from a rather mild early schedule, facing only five teams in the top half of the table in their first thirteen matches. They were on the business end of a 5-2 shellacking at the hands of Arsenal at the end of September, although you would be inclined to say that the Foxes hadn’t completely hit their stride by that point, at least not like this.
We are all about to find out the validity of that last sentence. Beginning with the aforementioned game on Saturday, City plays four of its next six games against teams in the top half of the table, including both Manchester clubs and a Liverpool team that looked vicious against Manchester City. Chelsea is in there too, which provides the perfect backdrop for a managerial rivalry subplot between Ranieri and Mourinho, assuming the latter still has his job at that point.
Leicester City faces a few tough stretches, and, to be fair, we’re only a third of the way through this season. Any team can still do anything, we’re all winners, etc., but what City is doing right now is special and deserves appropriate, measured acclaim. Comparing anything directly to Steph Curry right now is completely crass and out of line, but to a very conservative degree, Vardy’s continued excellence runs parallel to Curry’s nightly magic. Both leave us asking, “When will this end? Can anybody stop him?” As with the 14-0 Golden State Warriors, the best stance to take, at least as far as impartial appreciation goes, is simply to watch as amazing happens. Right now, amazing is happening in Leicester.
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