Friday 28 October 2016

Foxes hunt no easy task for big guns

Mark Ogden

Published 14/05/2016 | 02:30

Leicester City's Jamie Vardy. Photo: Reuters
Leicester City's Jamie Vardy. Photo: Reuters
How the big clubs underperformed this season

There is some hope, at least, for the Premier League's under-performing superpowers as they prepare to wrap up a campaign of non-fulfillment and disappointment before setting their sights on making Leicester City pay for audacity next season.

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Unexpected champions tend not to repeat their success 12 months later. Aston Villa trailed in 11th a year after winning the First Division in 1981, while Leeds United crawled in in 17th position in 1993, just two points above the relegation zone, after pipping Manchester United to the title the year before.

And as for Blackburn Rovers, lavishly funded as they were by Jack Walker in 1995, their defence of the title in the 1995-'96 campaign - Blackburn finished seventh - will only be erased from the record books as the worst title defence in Premier League history when Chelsea end their campaign in ninth or tenth following tomorrow's baton-passing encounter with Leicester at Stamford Bridge.


Leicester are on course to secure the biggest winning margin since Alex Ferguson bowed out at Manchester United manager in 2012-'13 with his team 11 points clear of runners-up Manchester City - a victory at Chelsea and defeat for Tottenham at Newcastle would see them end the season 13 points clear of the pack.

But whether they win it by seven, 10 or 13 points, Claudio Ranieri's team will start next season with a clean slate and a group of heavyweights prepared to gang up on them and make up for this season's failings with a vengeance.

The Foxes can ready themselves to be hunted down by City, United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Spurs and Liverpool, but will it be so straightforward that the established order is restored and Leicester drift back into the anonymity of mid-table, or worse, the relegation battle?

As Jamie Vardy received his Footballer of the Year award in London on Thursday, it was the clear from the England forward's acceptance speech that Leicester do not regard themselves as one-hit wonders.

They are ready to meet the challenge again and make their rivals fight to wrestle the Premier League trophy out of their grasp.

"We have to wait until next season to see if we can do it again," Vardy said. "I think we will do exactly the same as this season. Why can't it happen again? The gaffer will push us to improve even more. If that isn't good enough to win it again then so be it, but we will keep progressing."

While Leicester have smartly out-thought and outfoxed their Premier League competitors in terms of player recruitment, the response from the big hitters will be telephone number transfer spending this summer.

Pep Guardiola will be given the funds to attract the world's best players to City, United will embark on another £100m-plus spending spree, while Antonio Conte will also be backed by Roman Abramovich in the market.

Liverpool are already showing signs of accelerated progress under Jurgen Klopp - Champions League qualification via a Europa League win against Sevilla next Wednesday would put the German's Anfield revolution into top gear - and Arsenal, once again, appear just two tenacious players away from being title contenders.

And as for Tottenham, any addition to their already-impressive squad will arguably position Mauricio Pochettino's team as title favourites.

But Vardy's reaction is simple - bring it on. "We know there will be a lot of improvements at other clubs, but at the end of the day, there will still be only 11 versus 11 when it comes to the games," he said. "If we are all on form, we will get something from that game."

Stability could yet be Leicester's trump card, however, and the key factor that enables them to mount a sustained defence of their crown.

Keeping N'Golo Kante will be a challenge, but the rest of Ranieri's squad - Vardy included - appear committed to the cause.

Chelsea could lose the foundation stone of John Terry from their squad, City will be remoulded under Guardiola, with numerous long-serving players likely to be shipped out, while United could be anything under anyone judging by the uncertainty surrounding Louis van Gaal's future as manager.

Three years on from Ferguson's retirement, United's state of flux remains unchecked and their habit of taking one step forward and one step back - or sideways, as some of Van Gaal's critics would suggest - does not help fuel genuine title prospects at Old Trafford next year.

Liverpool? If Klopp can keep Daniel Sturridge fit, secure the defence and eradicate the lapses in concentration, Anfield could yet host the title party it come so close to staging until Steven Gerrard slipped in front of Demba Ba two years ago.

But Liverpool continue to miss the heartbeat and drive of Gerrard, so they also have work to do. Leicester, surprise champions or not, go into the summer in good shape, with Ranieri needing only to make a handful of tweaks to his team.

The big guns will undoubtedly embark on a summer arms race and point their heavy artillery towards the King Power Stadium, but Leicester might take some shifting. (© Independent News Service)

Irish Independent

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