Time to play 'spot the underdog' in this crazy Premier League season

You don’t hear a lot about ‘The Tinkerman’ anymore. But then you don’t hear much about ‘The Special One’ either.  

Time to play 'spot the underdog' in this crazy Premier League season

So, at least in terms of reality eclipsing reputation, it’s honours even between Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho, as Leicester City prepare to host Chelsea on Monday night.

But in almost every other way, their respective positions in the Premier League make this managerial head to head look like a particularly fanciful version of ‘Stars In Their Eyes’, with old Claudio telling Matthew that tonight he’s going to be Jose Mourinho while, plaintively, Jose declares that he only wishes he could be Jose Mourinho too.

Nothing illustrates the crazy, logic-upending nature of this Premier League season better than this meeting between last season’s champions and last season’s great escapers, a role-reversal coming together which finds Chelsea three points off second from bottom and Leicester lording it over all the rest at the top.

Unless you are a southern blue, it’s amusing to recall the predictions for the season ahead as delivered on the eve of kick off last August.

Almost without exception, the wizards were forecasting a cull of the Foxes.

Here, plucked at random from numerous print and online previews, is a typical example: “Leicester have one very simple and yet very difficult goal — surviving relegation. Anything better than that would be seriously impressive; anything worse would be greeted with a collective shrug of the shoulders. But it’s going to be difficult for Leicester who are, on paper, one of the weakest teams in the entire division.”

Fair comment, you’d have to say, and not least because Leicester had lost their star man from the previous season, Esteban Cambiasso, and gained, in Nigel Pearson’s replacement Claudio Ranieri, a gaffer who seemed to arrive at the King Power bearing the stigma of damaged goods, having been sacked as manager of Greece following a home defeat to the Faroe Islands.

The assumption was that such disruptive change in the close season would mean the momentum generated in the previous campaign’s feat of escapology would be lost, Leicester’s great leap forward to be followed by a tumble back over the precipice.

But the admirable Ranieri had clearly been paying attention to the qualities underpinning the death-defying stunt which had seen Pearson’s side win six of their last eight games and pick up a remarkable 19 points from the final 24 available in the 2014/15 season.

And this from a team which had managed only four league wins up to April.

So what the Italian saw upon arrival was a team in title-winning form who just happened to be at the wrong end of the table.

Getting them to take up where they’d left off was key to what happened next, and the results are now there for all to see: since that transformative month of April, their overall run of form reads: P24 W16 D6 L2 — a total of 54 points.

The celebrated goals of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have obviously been a huge part of Leicester’s current success, their importance even more obvious when you consider that the side have also conceded more goals (21) than all but one other club (West Ham) in the top 10.

But it’s something rather more intangible than the precious ability to provide the clinical finish to a brand of pacy, productive, counter-attacking football which seems to be at the heart of this remarkable story: call it unity of purpose, collective commitment or just plain old team spirit, but Leicester clearly have that X factor in abundance.

In short, they’re playing football with a smile to match that which is habitually to be found on the face of Claudio Ranieri and, in the process, slapping a smile on the faces of all of us who had long since given up on the idea of the Premier League title race as a home to heroic romance.

Chelsea, under Mourinho, used to have that same X factor, only in their case they could also call on the talents of a stellar squad to overlay the steel with style.

That was the winning combination which, last season, saw them both swagger and grind their way to a deserved title and make them favourites with many, including me, to repeat the feat this time around.

Instead, they find themselves vying with Leicester for the title of surprise packages of the season, Jose Mourinho’s increasing resemblance to Jack Dee telling you all you need to know about the nature of the booby prize within.

So instead of ‘The Special One’, we’ve encountered ‘The Angry One’ and ‘The Hapless One’ and, after Wednesday night’s success in the Champions League, ‘The Relieved One’.

Certainly, the impressive 2-0 win over Porto was something like the Chelsea of old in something that even felt like the Stamford Bridge of old, yet perhaps nothing sums up the drastically changed state of the defending champions quite like the post-match spectacle of Mourinho reaching into history to suggest that even the underdog can have its day in Europe’s most prestigious club competition.

The rather more pressing question now is whether the underdog can have another day at the King Power Stadium on Monday, a proper teaser given that here is a side which can lose to Bournemouth and top their Champions League qualifying group in the space of a few days.

When will the real Chelsea stand up — and for how long?

As for Leicester, Monday heralds a series of Christmas assignments which, taken together, will really put their title credentials to the test. (Did I just use the words ‘Leicester’ and ‘title credentials’ in the same sentence? Why, I believe I did).

After Chelsea, they face Everton and Liverpool away and then Manchester City at home, a potentially season- defining sequence of games even before 2014 has breathed its last.

Chelsea, by contrast, have Sunderland and Watford at home and Manchester United away but, unless they do the business on Monday, those fixtures will seem about as inviting as a minefield for Mouriho’s team.

Again, it would have seemed inconceivable back in the summer, but Leicester v Chelsea on Monday is now shaping up to be one of the most fascinating and potentially revealing Premier League match-ups of the season, a game which is set to tell us as much about the durability of Leicester’s bubble — the one that, let’s be frank, many still expect to burst — as it will about the extent to which Chelsea are any closer to finding the cure for their own malaise.

Place an ‘x’ on the underdog of your choice.

Instead of ‘The Special One’ we’ve encountered ‘The Angry One’ and ‘The Hapless One’ and ‘The Relieved One’

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