Liam Mackey: Say it quietly, but Leicester are title contenders again

It was all sweetness and light between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp at the Football Writers’ Awards dinner in Manchester last Sunday.

Liam Mackey: Say it quietly, but Leicester are title contenders again

It was all sweetness and light between Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp at the Football Writers’ Awards dinner in Manchester last Sunday.

Guardiola was joking — but, of course — yet still only saying what a lot of people have been thinking since last season when he remarked that he would like to win “my trophy back”, meaning the Champions League, while he was “pretty sure that he (Klopp) would like to win that one” (have a wild guess).

“Maybe we can swap?” suggested the City manager, bringing the house down.

A nice bit of bantz there, befitting the balance of power between the big-beast gaffers of the Premier League’s top two.

Except that, er, they’re not the top two.

A quick glance at the table confirms that, yes, Liverpool are lording it over all the rest, nine points clear of their great rivals after 13 games, but actually it’s another City who are currently occupying the silver-medal position. And looking ominously comfortable there, to boot.

Not only are Leicester one point better off than City, they have scored one goal more than Liverpool (31 to 30) and conceded three fewer. In fact, their goals-against record, a miserly eight, is the best in the division, confirmation that there’s much more to Brendan Rodgers’ team than the kind of merciless attacking prowess which saw them inflate that goals-for tally by putting nine past a hapless Southampton side in October to record the biggest away win in the history of top-flight English football.

While we’re on the stats entertainment front: last week’s 2-0 win away to Brighton equalled Leicester’s best run of consecutive victories in the Premier League, matching the five they secured across March and April in 2016. And, whisper it, after 13 games, Brendan Rodgers’ team are now a point better off than Claudio Ranieri’s side were at the same point in that fabled title-winning campaign.

Nah, they couldn’t … could they?

But just remember where you read that first — and were still reading it almost right up to that immortal moment when, standing beside Ranieri, Andrea Bocelli sang ‘Nessun Dorma’ as the King Power Stadium and the watching world wiped away the tears and basked in the glory of one of the most unlikely accomplishments in all of sport.

Whenever we get to see an underdog over-achieving, there is a natural tendency to spotlight the base metal virtues of spirit, fight, and togetherness, to construct an equation in which the whole adds up to more than the sum of its parts. But while that was certainly a big factor in the Leicester success story of 2016 — embodied in a sense of collective purpose which, as momentum built throughout that season, allowed the erstwhile tinkerman Ranieri to more or less just wind them up and let them go — the Foxes simply couldn’t have gone all the way without some serious quality in their ranks.

And in Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, and N’Golo Kante, they not only had three of the very best players in the Premier League that year but, in their devastating form throughout that campaign, three players who would have enhanced any team in the world at that time.

Mahrez and Kante are gone from the King Power now, but Vardy is still there and, remarkably for someone who turns 33 in January, appears to be back to his potent, livewire best.

With his blinding acceleration and uncanny eye for the shortest distance between his foot or his head and the back of the net, Vardy comes across like something out of an old-school comic — an Alf Tupper wearing Billy’s Boots — his 12 goals in the campaign so far seeing him currently topping the scoring charts ahead of all the hotshots, young and old, like Abraham, Aguero, Mané, Sterling, Aubameyang, Kane and the rest.

But what that also tells you is that the striker supreme is getting the service he requires.

Vardy might not have Mahrez as a partner in crime anymore, but in Youri Tielemans and the exceptional James Maddison, he has quality attacking midfielders who can pick out a killer pass, and in wingers Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Perez — augmented by raiding full-backs Ben Chillwell and Ricardo Pereira — another reliable source of ammunition from the flanks.

The incomparable N’Golo Kante was always going to be the hardest one to replace, as was painfully evidenced by Leicester’s struggles after Chelsea snapped him up in the wake of the 2016 title triumph, but Wilfred Ndidi — whom Cork City fans might recall playing for Genk at Turners Cross a couple of months after Leicester’s triumph — is this season playing an increasingly influential role in both breaking up the opposition play and protecting his back four.

While there is much to admire in the fluid, progressive, more possession-based approach of Leicester under Brendan Rodgers, arguably the most impressive part of the team is the central defence — not least because the loss of Harry Maguire to Manchester United was widely regarded as a potentially crippling fatal blow to the Foxes’ hopes. But the hugely experienced Jonny Evans — a steal at just under €4m — and Caglar Soyuncu have stepped up to the plate with, as the defensive stats confirm, resounding success, their regular clean sheet solidity reinforced by the presence behind them of a formidable ’keeper in Kasper Schmeichel.

But can lightning really strike twice at the King Power?

There’s no doubt that, in 2016, Leicester were able to capitalise on the deficiencies of the misfiring big guns, finishing a full 10 points clear of second-placed Arsenal — remember them? — who were, in turn, followed by Spurs, Man City, and Man United. Liverpool ended up in eighth place, trailing Leicester by a whopping 21 points, by which stage Brendan Rodgers had already paid the price for an underwhelming campaign at Anfield.

Enter Jurgen Klopp and, three seasons later, Liverpool are hot favourites to finally do what they had come so close to doing under Rodgers in 2014. But while their unbeaten run in the Premier League means they currently hold a commanding eight-point lead, command performances have been thin enough on the ground of late to at least give some encouragement to the next in line of Leicester, Man City and Chelsea.

For their part, all the Foxes can do is keep on keeping on, something which shouldn’t prove too difficult in the short term, given that their next four games are, on paper at least, eminently winnable — beginning at home to Everton tomorrow, followed by Watford (home), Aston Villa (away) and Norwich (away).

Longer-term, if they are really to give 2016 a run for its money, as well as hoping that Vardy stays injury-free, it will be vital that they retain the services of in-demand players like Chilwell and Maddison. Not to mention the gaffer himself, of course, now that there’s a vacant hot seat at the Emirates.

Maybe the season will yet pan out as many imagined it would at the start, with Jurgen and Pep arguing over the spoils.

But, at this admittedly early stage, the very least Leicester City deserve is to be part of that conversation.

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