There was only one real wobble — a run of one win in five matches immediately after Christmas — and to date they have been beaten just three times. Even when, no longer misdiagnosed as over-achieving minnows, Leicester found opposing teams massing themselves behind the ball, they ground out five 1-0 wins in six games to move to within sight of the title. Leicester’s triumph also owes a debt to the perfect storm that saw defending champions Chelsea collapse, Manchester United toil and Manchester City and Arsenal fail to last the course. But for an unheralded team composed of players with almost zero title-winning know-how, their success in leading from the front represents an astonishing feat of fortitude and sporting courage.
My piece for AFP on how Leicester City pulled off one of the most extraordinary successes in the history of professional sport can be read here.
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A sweep of the press room before Leicester City’s recent victory over Swansea City confirmed the extent to which their pursuit of Premier League glory has captivated global audiences. Journalists from as far afield as Finland, Turkey, South Korea and Australia mingled in the queue for a pre-match meal, while a 10-strong Japanese contingent sat around a table discussing how Shinji Okazaki would fare in the absence of his suspended strike partner Jamie Vardy. The team that narrowly avoided relegation last season are now just three points from the league title and their Cinderella story has won them admirers in the most unlikely locations. “Last season, no-one really wrote about Leicester in the US and no-one really talked about them,” says Joe Prince-Wright, the lead soccer writer for American broadcasting giant NBC. “This season it’s been incredible — people like [New England Patriots quarterback] Tom Brady and NFL players have been sending them messages. All of a sudden there’s this clamour to latch onto the underdog story.”
How the global media have gone giddy for the Foxes – read my AFP piece here.
The Champions League has at times been a steep learning curve for City, but playing against seasoned elite-level contenders has given Hart a chance to shine. Against eventual champions Barcelona last season, he pulled off 10 saves in a 1-0 second-leg defeat at Camp Nou, which moved Lionel Messi — whose penalty he had saved in the first leg — to brand him a “phenomenon”. “He saved everything,” said the awestruck Argentine, while Barcelona coach Luis Enrique described Hart’s display as “incredible”. When City lined up against Juventus, last season’s beaten finalists, in September, Buffon said “you won’t think of a better goalkeeper in the world”.
Ahead of Manchester City’s Champions League semi-final against Real Madrid, I’ve written something on Joe Hart, who often saves his best appearances for the competition. You can read it here.
The scrawny striker’s gritty back story, fiery temperament and hard-running playing style have turned him into something of an anti-hero for Leicester’s supporters, who have never seen their club win the title. “Jamie Vardy’s having a party, bring your vodka and your charlie!” is a regular chant at Leicester’s King Power Stadium. Meanwhile, an enigmatically aggressive Facebook post made by Vardy in October 2011 — “Chat shit get banged” — has become the go-to put-down among British youngsters on social media. But while Leicester’s fans revel in Vardy’s outlaw status, the West Ham incident suggested that the rough edges that once saw him convicted of assault during his non-league days have not been smoothed away.
Will Jamie Vardy’s angry dismissal against West Ham United cost Leicester City the title? My piece for AFP can be read here.
The sight of Klopp on the touchline — squawking at his players, pumping his fist in celebration of Divock Origi’s first-half goal — will have been immediately familiar to Dortmund’s fans, who granted him a touching send-off at the final whistle. So too the tactics employed by his team, whose aggressive, front-foot approach prevented the home side from settling into any kind of rhythm and whose counter-attacks kept the Dortmund rearguard on constant alert. While Dortmund have become more of a possession-based team under Klopp’s successor, Thomas Tuchel — the legacy of the new status his seven-year tenure left them with — Liverpool are exhibiting the same underdog mentality upon which he built his success in the Ruhr valley. Speaking earlier this season, former Liverpool defender Mark Lawrenson said the team’s best performances were “reminiscent of Borussia Dortmund at their best under Jürgen Klopp”.
Ahead of the second leg of the Europa League quarter-final between Liverpool and Borussia Dortmund, here’s something I wrote on how Jürgen Klopp is using the tactics that took Dortmund to the summit of the European game in his rebuilding job at Anfield.
An urbane, understated figure, Pellegrini has already brought one Premier League title and two League Cups to the Etihad Stadium, but although it took the might of Barcelona to oust City from the Champions League in his first two seasons, he has been seen as something of a tactical ingenu. Pellegrini, it was said, was too closely wedded to attacking football to achieve success in Europe, but the manner of the triumph over PSG showed that City could play on the front foot in the Champions League, and prosper. City were sloppy defensively in the first leg, but scored opportunistic away goals through Kevin De Bruyne and Fernandinho, and their reward for refusing to sit on their advantage in Tuesday’s return leg was the 76th-minute De Bruyne strike that sealed a 3-2 aggregate win. That PSG were their last-eight victims was rich in symbolism — the other club buoyed by vast Middle Eastern wealth, already French champions and supposedly several developmental stages ahead of City, sent back to Paris with their tails between their legs.
A piece for AFP on a night of personal vindication for Manuel Pellegrini.
Handed United’s fabled number seven shirt after a club-record £59.7 million ($84.3 million, 74 million euros) transfer from Real Madrid, Di María could scarcely have arrived at Old Trafford amid greater fanfare. But despite a promising start, including a delicious lob at Leicester City, Manchester would not prove a happy home for the man nicknamed ‘Fideo’ (Noodle) on account of his skinny frame. Van Gaal continually changed his role, even fielding him as a lone striker at one stage, and a succession of injuries prevented him from finding any rhythm. The nadir arrived in late January last year when a group of burglars armed with scaffolding poles attempted to smash their way into Di María’s luxurious home while he, his wife and one-year-old daughter cowered inside.
I’ve written something on Ángel di María’s trip to the Etihad Stadium with Paris Saint-Germain, which gives him an opportunity to add a footnote to the chapter marked ‘Manchester’. You can read it here.
I caught up with the crew on Sportsnet’s Soccer Central podcast on Thursday to look back at the week’s Champions League quarter-final first legs. Our conversation took in the link between tiki-taka and Fernando’s moment of madness against Paris Saint-Germain, Zlatan Ibrahimović’s likely next move and Fernando Torres’s crazy sending-off against Barcelona. You can listen here.
Cruyff, who died from lung cancer aged 68 on Thursday, was a balletic, dazzlingly elegant player who came to embody the brilliant Ajax and Holland teams of the mid-1970s. Together with visionary coach Rinus Michels, he popularised the concept of ‘Total Football’ — a fluid playing system based on aggressive pressing, swarming attacks and positional interchanging that seemed to depend on an almost telepathic understanding between players. Cruyff, given licence to roam from his nominal position as centre-forward, was the on-pitch conductor, calculating angles, cajoling his team-mates into position and launching vertiginous dribbles into opposition territory with the ball at his feet.
My piece for AFP on Johann Cruyff’s role as a style icon and football innovator can be read here.
Hailing from the French island of La Réunion in the Indian Ocean, Payet was released by mainland club Le Havre at 16 and had to be persuaded not to abandon his dream of becoming a professional by his father, Alain. Offered a path back to Ligue 1 by Nantes, he acquired a reputation as a flamboyant but errant talent. At Nantes he clashed in training with former France goalkeeper Fabien Barthez. At Saint-Étienne he headbutted team-mate Blaise Matuidi in the middle of a match. At Marseille he fell out with Florian Thauvin. It partly explains why Matuidi — now of Paris Saint-Germain — has 41 France caps to Payet’s 15, despite the two being born less than two weeks apart.
A piece on Dimitri Payet, once one of French football’s enfants terribles, now the last darling of the Boleyn Ground.