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.
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 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.
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.
The FA is determined to arrest a slide in the number of England-eligible players playing in the Premier League, and has already introduced rules tightening up the visa application process for non-EU players. Wayne Harling, a member of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), believes that leaving Europe would smooth the development path for home-grown players such as 18-year-old Manchester United newcomer Marcus Rashford. “Rashford is only playing because of an injury crisis, but the problem with having so many EU players in the Premier League is that people like him usually wouldn’t be given a chance,” Harling told AFP. “The academies aren’t able to push players on to full-time contracts because they find it cheaper to recruit an established player from overseas.”
I’ve written a piece on how a British exit from the European Union might affect the Premier League – you can read it here.
Celebrity fan Piers Morgan, the newspaper editor turned chat-show host, continues to fire up the #WengerOUT campaign on social media, while a banner held aloft during the recent FA Cup win at Hull City read: “ARSENE, THANKS FOR THE MEMORIES, BUT IT’S TIME TO SAY GOODBYE.” The banner was condemned by Arsenal players past and present — as well as David Beckham — but it illustrated the deep discontent felt by certain fans, as glimpsed in the scuffles that broke out outside the Emirates following Sunday’s 2-1 FA Cup quarter-final defeat by Watford. Arsenal are on course to qualify for the Champions League for the 20th season running, but after six successive last-16 exits they have become the competition’s perennial wallflowers — always at the party, but never on the dance-floor.
Loath to cite Piers Morgan, but here is a piece on where Champions League elimination leaves Arsenal and Arsène Wenger.
Having started just two of Chelsea’s final 16 Premier League games under José Mourinho, Mikel has started nine of 12 under Hiddink in the only notable non-enforced personnel change that the Dutchman has made to the starting XI. As well as being unbeaten in their 12 league games to date under Hiddink, Chelsea’s average number of goals conceded per game has dropped from 1.625 to 1, and Mikel’s defensive nous has been an important factor. “He’s the ideal player to bring balance to the team,” Hiddink said earlier this year. “He knows where the strength of the opponent is and he knows exactly how to cope with that. He doesn’t do it in a very brutal way — he’s very, very elegant. What I like to see very much is not just a quality player, but a player who can defend so smoothly. It’s beautiful to see.”
A piece for AFP on the role that John Mikel Obi has played in Chelsea’s return to form.
After becoming frustrated about his lack of progress at first City and then Chelsea, Sturridge did not begin to consistently showcase the staggering ability first glimpsed during his teenage years until he joined Liverpool in January 2013. An intelligent, technically accomplished and elusive striker, he scored 11 times in his first 16 games and contributed 21 goals to a mesmerising 52-goal partnership with Luis Suárez as Liverpool came agonisingly close to Premier League glory in 2013-14. Fondly admired by England manager Roy Hodgson, he went to the 2014 World Cup with the number nine shirt on his back and scored in their opening game against Italy. But since then a litany of niggling injuries has restricted him to 28 appearances from a possible 101 for Liverpool and kept him away from the international scene for over 18 months.
A piece for AFP on Liverpool’s Daniel Sturridge, who will be seeking to make up for lost time in Sunday’s Capital One Cup final.
Hazard was the Premier League’s showboater-in-chief in 2014-15, but his crown has been stolen by Mahrez, whose 14 goals and 10 assists make him one of the favourites to succeed the Belgian as England’s Player of the Year. The two players were born a month apart in 1991 and both are quick, skilful forwards who learnt their trade in northern France – Hazard at Lille, Mahrez at Le Havre. But it is where their similarities end that the symbolism begins. Hazard, a £32 million ($46.3 million, 41.3 million euros) signing from Lille in 2012, has become the sleep-walking incarnation of Chelsea’s slump from champions to mid-ranking also-rans. Leicester have taken their place at the summit and in the impish Mahrez, a £400,000 bargain buy from Le Havre, they possess a figure who embodies the Premier League’s startling democratisation.
How Riyad Mahrez stole Eden Hazard’s crown as England’s great entertainer – my piece for AFP can be found here.
Related link: From factory floor to record books for Leicester’s Vardy
Related link: Pluck and pizza propel Leicester to summit
Whereas close-season spending was driven by the leading clubs — Manchester City twice breaking their transfer record to sign Raheem Sterling (£44 million rising to £49 million) and Kevin De Bruyne (£55 million); Manchester United betting the house on unheralded French teenager Anthony Martial (£36 million rising to £61.5 million) — in January it has been a different story. Sky and BT Sport’s blockbuster £5.14 billion domestic TV rights deal kicks in at the start of next season, with the sale of overseas rights — expected to be confirmed in the coming weeks — set to swell that figure to £8 billion for the period 2016-2019. It means that the cost of relegation has never been higher, and it is the clubs at the wrong end of the Premier League table who have been opening their wallets the most eagerly during the mid-season transfer period.
A look at how the looming TV rights cash bonanza has affected the January transfer window in the Premier League – you can read it here.
Related link: English clubs impose Martial law in Europe