Tuesday 17 September 2019

Leicester look well placed to gatecrash the top-four party

Manager Brendan Rodgers with striker Jamie Vardy, who is rediscovering his title-winning form. Photo: Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images
Manager Brendan Rodgers with striker Jamie Vardy, who is rediscovering his title-winning form. Photo: Robin Jones - AFC Bournemouth/AFC Bournemouth via Getty Images

Paul Wilson

Four matches in and the title race - apologies for using that expression in September - already seems to be confirming most people's predictions. Liverpool and Manchester City will once again be clear front-runners, one will end up with close to 100 points and the only scope for variation is the extent Aymeric Laporte's long-term injury will unbalance the defending champions as they seek to prevent their rivals getting any further ahead.

Even at this stage it is assumed that matches between the top two will decide the eventual outcome, on the basis that the other 18 teams in the Premier League are too far behind to make any significant inroads on points totals. That, however, is simply not the way football works.

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Manchester City were beaten by Crystal Palace and Newcastle last season, two unexpected results in the middle of a campaign that also brought defeats at Chelsea and Leicester. Liverpool missed out on the title by drawing too often, the clubs able to hold them including Arsenal, West Ham, Everton and, again, Leicester.

Reviewing those statistics it is perhaps not all that surprising to see Leicester in third place at the moment, especially with a capable manager in Brendan Rodgers and a couple of adventurous new signings in Ayoze Pérez and Youri Tielemans.

No one is yet saying another title challenge is on the cards, though Jamie Vardy appears to have rediscovered his 2016 form, but with players of the quality of James Maddison and Ben Chilwell now established regulars Leicester look capable of finishing a lot higher than last season's ninth.

Their results include a draw at Chelsea that could easily have been a win. This is a side not only likely to take points from top-six opponents over the season but one with a decent chance of disrupting the top four. Odds of around 25-1 could be obtained on Leicester claiming a Champions League place at the start of the season, yet after four games the bookies have seen enough to trim to 8-1.

While a long way from the fantasy-land 5,000-1 famously offered on them winning the title in 2015-16, it might still be worth backing Leicester for the same reason that helped them prevail four seasons ago.

Leicester are seventh favourites to finish in the top four but unlike all six teams ahead of them they have no European distractions. Playing one game a week most weeks was an enormous advantage to Claudio Ranieri and his squad, just as it was to Antonio Conte's Chelsea a year later. The title may be out of Leicester's reach, but below the top two everyone else has looked vulnerable with the draining effects of Europe still to kick in.

Though it might be argued that the global names near the top of the Premier League have a squad depth designed to cope with the demands of extra fixtures in Europe, this was not a line being peddled by many top-six managers when Leicester and Chelsea were winning their titles.

A streamlined schedule seems to be more of a blessing to an ambitious team than extra names on the roster and though no one accused Leicester and Chelsea of cheating by flying below UEFA's radar, rivals with European commitments generally felt the ability to concentrate solely on the league conferred an almost unfair advantage.

It should not be imagined that the disruptive effect of playing in Europe is limited to the inconvenience of Sunday kick-offs or tiring late-night flights from remote parts of eastern Europe. Training and preparation is compromised for the week and there is psychological pressure, too. Last season Manchester City's blip was between qualifying from the group stage and beginning the knock-out phase.

While Europe will not be a complication when the Premier League returns on Saturday, Leicester's visit to Manchester United should test the theory that Rodgers's players have the potential to stay ahead of Ole Gunnar Solskjær's. Everything looked promising for Solskjær after the opening weekend but United have not managed a win since. Rodgers is the more experienced manager, Leicester have confidence and even though it is the fifth game of the season, United already have everything to prove.

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