Thu | Sep 21, 2017

Leicester defying the critics

Published:Saturday | December 26, 2015 | 12:00 AM

LONDON (AP):

Leicester had little to celebrate last Christmas. Languishing in last place in the Premier League, the team was facing instant relegation back to the second tier.

Now Leicester are looking down on everyone.

From propping up the league, Leicester have surged to the pinnacle inside 12 months and rivals are trying to figure out how to replicate their feat. It has not been accomplished by a spending splurge but through astute bargain buys far expecting expectations and a managerial change that had most pundits forecasting a relegation struggle.

The turnaround is as astonishing and unforeseen as Chelsea's collapse from champions to a team now hovering above the relegation zone. When Leicester beat the champions earlier this month it no longer seemed such a shock, although it cost Jose Mourinho his Chelsea job.

The tale of the two clubs and their contrasting fortunes is the biggest surprise in the history of the Premier League.

"I don't know how it's possible," Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri reflected this week. "I think it's a fantastic achievement. If I understood very well, never at this time was Leicester top of the league."

This team, based in an east Midlands city better known for its textiles industry and rugby side, has never won the top prize in English football. Not in the post-1992 Premier League era or any time stretching back into the 19th century. The only major honour Leicester have ever collected is the League Cup, with the third and most recent triumph coming in 2000.

Aware how close Leicester came to being relegated last season under Nigel Pearson - before a stunning late revival that was not enough to keep him in a job - Ranieri has cooled fan expectations. The target for this season remains reaching the 40-point mark that should guarantee a place in the Premier League next season. That can be achieved at the halfway point today when a win at Liverpool would lift Leicester to 41 points.

As Leicester have remained among the front-runners throughout the season, the widespread expectation has been it was a matter of if - not when - Leicester start to slip down the standings. Two matches from the halfway point and everyone is still waiting.

The whole season has been one long mission in defying the critics. Leicester were considered foolish for plucking Ranieri from the ranks of unemployed coaches to replace Pearson in July. It had been 11 years since he had managed in England with Chelsea - during which he was often labelled "The Tinkerman" for constantly changing the starting line up - and he had been out of work since an embarrassing spell in charge of the Greece national team.

"I am waiting for when people change my nickname from 'Tinkerman' to 'Thinkerman,'" quipped Ranieri, whose avuncular and calm demeanour contrasts with the league's more erratic coaches.

One thing Ranieri does not own up to thinking about is lifting the trophy for the world's richest football competition in May.

"I think we aren't ready to fight to be champions," he said, even as Leicester sit two points in front of Arsenal and six ahead of Manchester City.

In the off season, Leicester's net spending of around $30 million was one sixth of Manchester City's outlay.

"We don't have the high quality like City, Arsenal, but we fight together," Ranieri said. "Every ball for us is the last ball. That's what we believe."