Wednesday 21 February 2018

Outside the box: Leicester fairytale may have final twist

Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring the decisive goal for Leicester against Burnley
Jamie Vardy celebrates scoring the decisive goal for Leicester against Burnley
Aidan O'Hara

Aidan O'Hara

Andy Dufresne: "Hope is a good thing. Maybe the best of things."

Red Redding to Dufresne: "Let me tell you something, my friend. Hope is a dangerous thing. Hope can drive a man insane."

- from 'The Shawshank Redemption'


In life, sport and football at this time of the season, it's the hope that kills you and few places captured this better than Turf Moor on Saturday.

The guttural roar that met Paul Konchesky's foul on Matt Taylor was the release of a season's worth of anxiety and an hour's tension during what was a dire game as Burnley threw everything at Leicester.

In the point between the foul and Taylor's penalty, thoughts of hope rattled through the brains of the Burnley supporters: Score the penalty, win, three points, off the bottom, one point off safety, within striking distance of two more teams, West Ham don't have much to play for next week, then two home games, then Villa away who might have their eye on the FA Cup final. Maybe, just maybe …

Then Taylor's penalty hit the post when he had no need to be so exact as the goalkeeper dived the opposite way, he fell to his knees in anguish and just as the thousands of supporters were digesting their disappointment, Leicester scored within a minute to kick them, hard, while they were down.

There are some fairytale stories in football but, for the most part, its ability to give hope before snatching it away borders on the sadistic.


The beauty of a relegation battle is that hope is all supporters have because, after the initial optimism that goes with the start of the season, most have come to accept that their team really isn't very good - which is what makes it all the more cruel when they get the hopes of their support up.

With four wins from four, Leicester are in the middle of their own fairytale story of survival despite spending more than 20 weeks of the season propping up the rest of the division.

They have four home games remaining out of their last five, starting against champions-elect Chelsea on Wednesday night. Maybe they could get something there and push on with a couple of victories to survive with a game to spare. Maybe, just maybe…

The momentum is certainly with them but if football has taught us anything it's that, were it telling the story of the Three Little Pigs, the wolf would find some petrol and a box of matches for a house made of bricks, rather than trying to blow the house down.

Despite their enormous success as a club, Liverpool know this better than anybody given their experience of the last 12 months.

There was little or no expectation at the beginning of last season but, as momentum built, they allowed themselves, like Andy Dufresne, to dream of what might be.

Throughout last March and April, Liverpool fans on a night out would belt out 'You'll Never Walk Alone' and embrace total strangers singing the same song to the bemusement of on-lookers. Cameras turned up early to Anfield to see hundreds waiting to welcome the team bus, there was momentum, there was belief, there was only seven points needed from two home games and one away to Crystal Palace. Maybe, just maybe…

At 2.53 this afternoon, it'll be one year to the minute since Mamadou Sakho played a simple pass inside to Steven Gerrard and, as his feet went from under him, so all those thoughts of fairytales came crashing down and one of the finest songs of mocking opposition support was born thanks to Demba Ba's goal.

In retrospect, it's an added twist of cruelty in the following game to see Luis Suarez sprint to get the ball out of the net having just put Liverpool 3-0 up at Palace with 35 minutes remaining only for three goals in nine minutes from Palace to finally snuff out what would have been the greatest title-winning stories in Premier League history.

This season, the early exit from the Champions League and struggles in the Premier League had Liverpool almost resigned to this being a season of transition post-Suarez until optimism grew out of nowhere.

A run of 10 wins and three draws from 13 games as well as an FA Cup semi-final to come, re-ignited expectation of a potential trophy-winning and Champions League-qualifying season that, as is his wont, saw manager Brendan Rodgers get thoroughly carried away.

"Manchester City's result at the weekend gives us an opportunity to finish second," said Rodgers after they had beaten Swansea and City lost to Burnley. What followed was an insipid performance against their biggest rivals in losing to Manchester United; a hiding at Arsenal; a woeful semi-final display against Aston Villa and Saturday's 0-0 against West Brom. The optimism of a year ago now almost feels like a dream.

It's in this context that Leicester need to be careful of thinking that the job is nearly complete. Given their fighting spirit in the last month, the majority of fans would want to see them survive but, in a sport where the final act of one of its greatest players was the be sent off for headbutting an opponent in a World Cup final, they would be wise not to put too much faith in the football gods.

After Chelsea, they have to face Newcastle, Southampton, Sunderland and QPR which are four winnable games but also ones that, from the reverse fixtures already this season, they managed one point from 12.

"Andy Dufresne, who crawled through a river of s*** and came out clean on the other side." Leicester have been in similar s*** for most of the season, there will probably be a few twists before they can confidently feel they are free.

Tweets of the week


Rio Ferdinand (@RioFerdy5)

M25 carnage this morning so it's #HouseOfCards back to back! Love Kevin Spacey!

- Footballers are affected by traffic like the rest of us. Most of the rest of us can't do this, though.


Joey Barton (@Joey7Barton)

Watching Mayweather/Pacquiao build up. I hope Manny smashes him up... I am a bit of a c**t from time to time. But I know it. I wonder if Floyd does also? It would at least explain a lot of his behaviour...

- Many, many of the responses to the QPR midfielder contained the phrase "a bit".


Mesut Ozil (@MesutOzil1088)

Good luck to my former teammates @realmadrid! @ChampionsLeague #ucl

- The Arsenal man showing his lazy side once again.


Paul McShane (@Pmacca15)

Who's house party would everyone go to? St George's or St Patrick's? #EarlGrey #Guinness

- The Hull and Ireland defender makes a good point on England's national saint's day. Albeit slaying a dragon is equally as impressive as driving away snakes.


David Meyler (@DavidMeyler7)

Bester of luck to @corksl U12s playing Waterford in the final in waterford tomorrow (one hour later) Get in! @CorkCityFC

- The Hull midfielder showing his heart is never far from home.


Fernando Torres (@Torres)

700 games and feeling the same first-day willingness. Thank you for coming along this track with me! #Torres700

- Those who watched the majority of time at Chelsea may wonder where the striker's first-day willingness went for that period.


Emmanuel Adebayor (@ E_Adebayor)

Just got my #AppleWatch, amazing technology. Can't wait to use it!

- If it's anything like its owner, the watch will work brilliantly for a month or two then do very little for the next few years.

Bet you should have done

Hull City to beat Crystal Palace (100/30) Continuing the theme from the last few weeks, this was a game between a team fighting and a team who had, relatively, very little to play for.

Hull have a very difficult run-in and desperately needed three points from Saturday's game.

That desire enabled them to win their first away game this year and trebled the money of anyone who backed them.

The question nobody asked

How many of the last dozen Champions League  semi-finals haven't featured Mourinho or Guardiola?

Bayern Munich's stunning comeback to beat Porto maintained Pep Guardiola's incredible managerial record of reaching the last four of the Champions League in each of his six seasons.

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