Leicester stars earn growing recognition during title charge
ABS-CBN Sports on Apr 01, 2016 09:36 AM
There has been growing international recognition for Leicester's star players. (AP Photos)
STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
MANCHESTER, England (AP) — There have been considerable knock-on effects for Leicester following the team's giddy rise to the top of the English Premier League.
A ramping-up of global interest and adulation? Definitely.
Qualification to the Champions League for the first time? Almost certainly, especially if the surprise leader beats Southampton at home on Sunday.
Then there's growing international recognition for its star players. On Tuesday, England started with two Leicester players — in this case, Jamie Vardy and debutant Danny Drinkwater — for the first time in 42 years in the 2-1 loss to the Netherlands. And on the same night, N'Golo Kante, Leicester's enforcer in central midfield, made his full debut for France on his 25th birthday and marked it by scoring one of the goals in a 4-2 win over Russia.
"Things are going fast," said Kante, who was playing for Caen in France's second tier only three years ago.
"I wouldn't have said it was possible four or five years ago," said Vardy, a goal-scorer against the Dutch and a striker who once worked in a carbon-fiber factory.
Leicester's fans will be saying the same kind of things.
After narrowly escaping relegation last season because of an incredible run of results in the final nine games, Leicester is mounting the most unlikely of title challenges and is five points clear of second-place Tottenham with seven games left. The club has never won a top-flight English league title.
Training would have been unusually quiet for Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri over the recent international break, given the increased number of national-team call-ups. Ranieri, therefore, must reignite the team's momentum from before the two-week hiatus ahead of the biggest six weeks in the club's 132-year history.
Southampton could be one of the toughest remaining opponents for Leicester, with the visitors from the south coast having won their last two games to climb within four points of the Champions League places.
But Leicester is showing remarkable resilience under pressure, winning its last three matches 1-0.
"They've been the best team this season, without question," Alex Ferguson, a managerial great in English soccer, has told Sky Sports, "and they deserve to win it."
Tottenham would pile the pressure on Leicester by beating Liverpool on Saturday, a day before Leicester plays.
Here are other things to watch out for this weekend:
MAN CITY'S REINFORCEMENTS
In danger of dropping out of the top four, out-of-form Manchester City has been handed a much-needed boost on the injury front.
Three midfielders — Samir Nasri, Kevin De Bruyne and Fabian Delph — were back in training this week after long injury lay-offs and could be in line to play against Bournemouth on Saturday.
De Bruyne's return after two months out with damaged ankle and knee ligaments is especially important for City, which hasn't scored in its last three matches and has been short of creativity. City broke its transfer record last August to sign De Bruyne for more than 50 million pounds (then $77 million).
City is in fourth place — the final Champions League qualification position — and only one point ahead of West Ham and Manchester United. West Ham hosts Crystal Palace on Saturday, and Manchester United is at home to Everton on Sunday.
Last-place Aston Villa is heading into its home match against Chelsea without a manager following the departure of Remi Garde on Tuesday.
With seven games left, Villa is 12 points from safety and has only won three league games all season.
Former Leicester manager Nigel Peasron has been linked with the vacancy, as has ex-Man United manager David Moyes.
Manchester United great Bobby Charlton will be honored for his contribution to the club by having a stand at Old Trafford named after him on Sunday, ahead of United's game against Everton.
The South Stand — the side of the stadium where the dugouts and changing rooms are located — will be renamed the Sir Bobby Charlton Stand at a ceremony. It will mark 60 years after Charlton made his debut for United.
The 78-year-old Charlton was an attacking midfielder who played 758 games for United and scored 249 goals, still a club record.