Showdown at Liverpool will gauge Leicester's title credentials | Paul Wilson


Leicester’s title triumph of 2015‑16, the one that had bookmakers begging punters with 5,000-1 betting slips to cash out early, is still being used as proof that anything can happen in the Premier League.

If a ragbag of players who were nearly relegated the previous season can win the league, guided by a charming but perennially underachieving manager whose appointment had been greeted with scepticism by chief Leicester cheerleader Gary Lineker, then it simply cannot be true that the English top flight is skewed massively towards the money clubs in the Champions League elite or that the majority of teams in the division have no realistic ambition beyond mere survival.

Leicester’s Wes Morgan and Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League in 2016
Leicester’s Wes Morgan and Claudio Ranieri lift the Premier League in 2016. Repeating the triumph this season no longer appears unrealistic. Photograph: Nick Potts/PA Images

That’s the theory, anyway. The past two or three seasons have done little to back it up, with Liverpool and Manchester City averaging around 2.6 points per game and obliterating the rest of the competition with their consistency and all round excellence. But one thing that might confound the pessimists would be Leicester doing it again.

Brendan Rodgers and his players do not need extra pressure when they visit Anfield next Sunday and both managers will naturally be at pains to dismiss any talk of titles nine games into the season. Yet when Leicester top the table – as they do at present – it is less easy to assume they will soon fade into the background in the manner of Everton or Southampton.

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Leicester still have a core of title winners in their side for a start – Kasper Schmeichel, Jamie Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Christian Fuchs – and that sort of experience is invaluable when it comes to closing out games or hanging on to leads.

The surprise element from five years ago is no longer quite there. Liverpool need no reminding how powerful and instinctive the Vardy-Riyad Mahrez counterattacking combination could be at its best. But Vardy remains a handful for any defence and he is now ably supported by Youri Tielemans, James Maddison and Harvey Barnes.

Leicester have proved resilient enough to return to the top of the league despite selling Harry Maguire to Manchester United and Ben Chilwell to Chelsea, partly because they have retained their knack of recruiting promising young players from unexpected sources.

Caglar Soyuncu is a prime example, replacing Maguire almost seamlessly, and when he became injured, the 19-year-old Wesley Fofana proved a surprisingly confident and capable deputy.

James Milner, Andy Robertson, Mo Salah and Georginio Wijnaldum are crestfallen after Liverpool’s 7-2 humbling at Aston Villa in October
James Milner, Andy Robertson, Mo Salah and Georginio Wijnaldum (from left) are crestfallen after Liverpool’s 7-2 humbling at Aston Villa in October. Photograph: Rui Vieira/EPA

None of this means Leicester are likely to stay in front for the rest of the season, even if that is how they won the league last time. The situation five years ago was that none of the usual challengers were at their best and no one mounted a serious challenge until it was too late. While that seems unlikely to happen again, it must have been noted that City and Liverpool have not only lost games already but lost heavily.

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That cannot have escaped anyone’s attention at the King Power since Leicester were responsible for the 5-2 defeat at the Etihad in the second game of the season. Liverpool fell to an even more surprising 7-2 defeat at Aston Villa, though perhaps more importantly have since lost Virgil van Dijk, Joe Gomez and Trent Alexander-Arnold to injury. That removes a huge chunk of the defending champions’ defence, and while Jürgen Klopp has the sort of squad depth one would expect of Champions League contenders, he would undoubtedly prefer the solidity of a back line that virtually picked itself.

Leicester’s situation would look even better had they not fallen to unexpected home defeats by Villa and West Ham a month ago, yet they recovered well enough by winning at Arsenal and Leeds. It is probably true to say there will be a few more unforeseen highs and lows in this strangest of seasons, though if you can beat Manchester City, Arsenal and Wolves you are not in the top four by accident.

If you can add Liverpool to that list, especially since they have gone 62 games unbeaten at Anfield, you can expect to be talked about as potential champions. Leicester might not want that at this stage, they might simply be looking to improve on last season and stay in the top four and Rodgers and his squad are certainly equipped to do that.

As José Mourinho said after Tottenham briefly touched a the top a week ago, there are at least half a dozen sides fighting for Champions League places and Leicester are among them. The rest of the season will show whether they have a better chance than Arsenal or Manchester United, as the table suggests, but there is already recognition that Leicester have forced their way into the upper echelon. From that position, particularly this season, anything is once again possible, except the romance of a 5,000-1 surprise.



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