Leicester ready for encore after surprise EPL title triumph
ABS-CBN Sports on Aug 08, 2016 07:53 PM
Leicester's Jamie Vardy celebrates after scoring during the Community Shield soccer match between Leicester and Manchester United at Wembley stadium in London, Sunday, Aug. 7, 2016 . (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
STEVE DOUGLAS, AP Sports Writer
A day after masterminding the most unlikely title success in English football history, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri was asked about his target for the next Premier League season.
Would it be a top-four finish? Maybe even retaining the trophy?
Not even close.
"We know very well," Ranieri said, "we have to fight for 10th position."
Never have titleholders' ambitions appeared to be so low. These, though, are no normal champions.
Leicester wrote a sporting underdog story for the ages by toppling the traditional heavyweights of England and winning the Premier League at pre-season odds of 5,000-1. A team widely tipped for relegation finished 10 points clear of second place.
Now for the encore.
But it won't be with the same cast.
Ranieri has lost his midfield dynamo, N'Golo Kante, to Chelsea for $40 million. Another significant departure came off the field, with Steve Walsh, the head of recruitment with a record of unearthing unheralded players and making them stars, joining Everton.
Speculation has been swirling in the offseason around the future of two more of last season's key players, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez. Vardy eventually signed a new deal but doubts remain about whether Mahrez will be at Leicester by the end of the transfer window on Aug. 31, with the winger heavily linked with Arsenal.
For this season, Leicester's title odds with British bookmakers range between 20-1 and 33-1. Pre-season games have been against Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona rather than Lincoln and Burton, which was the case in 2015. And part of the warm-up for the new campaign was a trip to Wembley Stadium for the Community Shield against Manchester United, which Leicester lost 2-1 on Sunday.
"Everything's different now," Ranieri said. "You imagine the big teams who didn't win, who didn't make the Champions League. They are going crazy now, they want to kill now."
Proving that Leicester is operating at a completely new level, the team will be competing in the Champions League for the first time. Ranieri could rely on a core group of players last season — with no European involvement along with early exits from the domestic cup competitions — and was able to shed his "Tinkerman" tag.
That may return, given he must juggle domestic and European competition, and Ranieri has been busy strengthening the depth of his squad in the offseason. Nampalys Mendy is tasked with filling the void left by Kante in central midfield, Nigeria forward Ahmed Musa joined from CSKA Moscow and has a similar profile to Vardy, while center back Luis Hernandez (from Sporting Gijon) and goalkeeper Ron-Robert Zieler (from Hannover) appear able back-ups.
With their mostly unheralded players and reliance on the counter-attack, the Foxes brought an element of surprise to last season and opponents underestimated them until it was too late. Even when opposition teams altered tactics and sat back more, Leicester still found a way to get results and finished the season with only three losses.
Why shouldn't they challenge for the title again? Taking into account the end of the 2014-15 season, when the team mounted a stunning escape from relegation under Nigel Pearson, Leicester has won 30 of its last 47 Premier League games and lost only four. The team spirit is strong, the King Power stadium is a tough place to visit, and Leicester has the perfect tactics for winning away games.
Externally, there will be no pressure on Leicester to repeat its amazing exploits from the 2015-16 season and few are expecting it to. But this is a team that just loves defying the odds. It opens with a trip to Hull on Saturday.
"The close-knit brotherhood is unbelievable," Vardy says, "and, for me, there's a lot of unfinished business here."