Fortune has favoured Leicester City but that is only a small factor of their remarkable season
Ronald Koeman was not happy. “We deserved two penalties,” the Southampton manager said on Sunday. “If it’s a penalty and red card they don’t win.”
Neither case for handball, against Leicester’s Danny Simpson and Robert Huth, was quite the gross miscarriage of justice the Dutchman thought. Each was a call that could have gone either way. They went Leicester’s. The league leaders went seven points clear. The most unlikely title tilt since, perhaps, Ipswich in 1961-62 is ever more likely to end happily.
Koeman’s gripe was less about Leicester and more about officials’ actions in several Southampton games. The bare facts, however, are that Leicester have had one player sent off this season, while their opponents have seen two men dismissed.
Claudio Ranieri’s team have been awarded 10 penalties and have only conceded two. There is no conspiracy among the refereeing fraternity to make them champions, but perhaps, contrary to the cliché, the luck is not evening itself out over the season.
Suggesting so risks accusations of sour grapes. Leicester’s previous victims were Crystal Palace and, while programme notes can often be anodyne affairs, Alan Pardew’s were unusually spiky. “The stars have aligned to get them to this point in the season with very few injuries, the top teams falling well short and some tight games going their way,” he said.
It is worth noting that Pardew also stated that: “They have earned the right to be where they are now.”
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So Leicester have. They are on the brink of an extraordinary achievement. They represent the most deserving winners and not least because they have held their nerve when most others have lost theirs. Yet it is worth reflecting on the remarkable convergence of elements that have enabled the impossible to become probable.
Firstly and most importantly, and in an example of something that hardly ever happens at the same time, every member of the starting 11 is enjoying the best season of his career. Put 11 in-form individuals together and it promises to be a winning formula. Putting the same 11 together, week after week, is something few managers are permitted to do. Yet nine Leicester players have appeared in at least 30 of their 32 league games. Injuries are something only squad players suffer at the King Power Stadium, and even then they are rarities.
Then, as Pardew mentioned, the usual suspects have endured unusual years. Chelsea have produced the worst title defence in Premier League history. Liverpool could record their lowest league finish in 54 years.
Given the investment at both, Manchester City and Manchester United are underachieving egregiously. Arsenal are outperforming each but maintained their historic inability to win enough games when the title became a realistic possibility.
Between them, they have created a vacuum that Leicester may fill. Ranieri’s men are on course to end the campaign with 82 points. It would be the second lowest total to win the Premier League this millennium.
Yet, strange as it sounds that Leicester will get 82 — about 50 more than many of us predicted — it is still harder to imagine them emerging victorious in a year when 88 or 90 were required.
The margins are understandably narrower for the unlikely challengers. Leicester have won 14 times by one goal. Their last five victories have all been 1-0.
A starting 11 assembled for a mere £22 million (Dh115m) cannot be expected to have the talent to overwhelm more expensively recruited teams regularly. It was telling that Arsenal, Chelsea and City all won 4-0 this weekend. Leicester have not enjoyed such an emphatic victory this season. It underlined that others could have done better. They could not.
Instead, they have displayed the consistency, the organisation, the spirit, the fitness and the mental strength to take them to the brink.
Fortune, both in terms of decisions and injuries, is certainly a factor. But then it required a remarkable amount of things to go right for a club such as Leicester to even threaten to upset the established order.
And now, ludicrously but brilliantly, they are just four wins from becoming champions.
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Published: April 4, 2016 04:00 AM