Leicester City extended its lead over Tottenham to seven points with six games to play in the Premier League by winning its fifth game in six tries by a scoreline of 1-0, this time over Southampton. With feel-good stories of fairy tales and glass slippers one fact should not go unmentioned, Leicester City is England’s best team.
Some of England's heavyweights are suffering a down year, but Leicester has 20 wins and 69 points through 32 games, putting the Foxes on pace for 24 wins and 82 points for the season. Five of the last 19 Premier League champions totaled 80 points or less, four won by Manchester United, including one with just 75 points (and you won't find asterisks or apologies next to any of them at Old Trafford).
The improbable race these Foxes have made from the clutches of relegation to the brink of a title has seen Leicester’s title chase become a global phenomenon, but the outpouring of support Leicester receives from other fans isn't just about the improbability of Leicester’s achievement, it's about the reality that the vast majority of soccer fans root for massive underdogs like Leicester year in and year out, with their annual reality dwarfing even the longest of long shots in American sports leagues.
Leicester represents the silent majority. None of the 112 teams in MLS, the NBA, the NFL or Major League Baseball faced preseason title odds greater than 250/1 to win their current or upcoming seasons, and only a handful faced 100/1 or more (the Chicago Fire, at 100/1, faces the longest odds in MLS), but every top soccer league in Europe finds over half of its teams facing title odds of 500/1, or far more.
Leicester was one of 11 teams in England that began the season with title odds of 2,000/1 or more, 13 of the 20 teams in Spain started with 500/1 odds or greater, 11 of the 18 teams in Germany were at 500/1 or more, while both France and Italy also saw 11 of their 20 teams opening at 500/1 or longer title odds.
Those odds are a function of huge disparities in resources, and how hard it is to overcome superior talent in cumulative title races played out over 38 games (or 34 in Germany), as opposed to rolling the dice in the playoffs under rules and salary restrictions imposed by U.S. sports leagues to encourage parity.
In spite of its reputation for "competition," scaling the hegemony at the top of England may be the most formidable challenge of all, as 22 of the 23 previous Premier League titles were awarded to just four teams, and 43 of the 45 Champions League berths over the past 11 seasons went to the Premier League’s five richest clubs, England has also gone far longer than any other top league since naming a first-time champion (as Leicester is poised to be).
Most recent first-time champion: France 2011-12 (Montpellier), Germany 2008-09 (Wolfsburg), Spain 1999-2000 (Deportivo La Coruna), Italy 1990-91 (Sampdoria) and in England it was 1977-78 (Nottingham Forest).
Why Cinderella's glass slippers don't fit these Foxes. You may catch a break or two along the way, but cumulative titles won over a 38-game season always finds the cream rising at or near the top. The Foxes began the race as heavy underdogs, but Leicester is ending the season exactly where it belongs, in first.
Leicester hasn't just been the best team in England by some distance since rising from dead last a year ago, it’s been one of the best teams in all of Europe.
Most points over the last year in Europe's top five leagues: PSG 104, Barcelona 102, Real Madrid 97, Juventus 93 and Leicester 91.
Leicester does have a few grizzled veterans enjoying their finest seasons, including the throwback pairing of Robert Huth and Wes Morgan in central defense, who don’t discriminate between clearing the ball and clearing your calf -- and captain Morgan’s header in the 1-0 win over Southampton on Sunday was his first goal of the season, coming after he played for the Reggae Boyz in Jamaica and Costa Rica in World Cup qualifiers over the break.
Leicester doesn’t have a great deal of depth, but Christian Fuchs and Danny Simpson at outside backs are quality players, Shinji Okazaki in attack as well, and midfielder Danny Drinkwater debuted for England over the break. Leicester is also the the only EPL team with three of the 10 highest rated players in the entire Premier League, per WhoScored, and Leicester’s three biggest stars shine as bright as any.
The fact none of these guys was playing first division soccer a couple years ago is a nice anecdote, but Jamie Vardy is the second leading scorer in England with 19 goals, and a complete nuisance to opponents without the ball, Riyad Mahrez's combination of creativity and attacking threat finds him the single highest rated player in the whole league, and N'Golo Kante has been the best central midfielder in England this season, and each of these three stars appeared in at least 31 of Leicester’s 32 games.
Vardy and Mahrez combined for a remarkable 28 goals and 10 assists in Leicester's first 17 games, but teams have become wary of their lightning counterattacks, and in the 15 games since Christmas they’ve combined for just six goals and seven assists, but every Leicester player understands it is now all about results, and results alone.
Leicester City scored multiple goals in 13 of those first 17 games, but only four times in its last 15 games, however, even as opposing coaches have made sure not to throw too many players forward, Leicester's players have also adjusted, spending the season’s second half hunkered down behind a stout defense -- and Sunday’s win was Leicester’s 10th shutout in its last 14 Premier League matches.
The nail-biting affairs of late have highlighted the contributions of Leicester’s back line, and Kante's immense influence on proceedings.
Kante made his debut, and scored, for Les Bleus over the break, and it’s remarkable to watch the 5-foot-7 defensive midfielder bullying opponents with his tenacity and agility at every turn, using his short stature to his advantage, lunging into tackles with supreme confidence that he will get the ball, and not the man (he only has three yellow cards all season).
Everybody’s second-favorite team. And then there is Claudio Ranieri the 64-year-old Italian who has never won a major league title during his 30 years of coaching, a man who spent the first two thirds of the season talking about avoiding relegation (while avoiding taking any credit).
“I'm very calm. We believe in what we are doing. We believe it's a magical season,” Ranieri said after the win over Southampton. “We believe next season it will not be the same and so we try to do our best.
“Today, we have a clean sheet and I'm so happy. The chairman is happy. Tomorrow it will be his birthday and we sang 'happy birthday' to him before the match.” (The fans at King Power stadium were all treated to Krispy Kreme donuts and Singha beer on Sunday, celebrating the birthday of club chairman, and Thai billionaire, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha.)
“Look, we are very close to achieving the Champions League. That's it. That's it,” said Ranieri, finally acknowledging relegation was off the table. “What is important is how we react, how we play. That's what I want from them. When they give me everything, their heart and soul, I'm happy.”
It seems Leicester’s players leave everyone feeling happy, even opposing fans whose teams have just lost.
Before taking their three-hour bus rides home, Southampton’s fans joyously serenaded Leicester’s title hopes, as there is enough joy in Leicester’s miraculous achievement for everyone to savor, particularly kindred spirits lower down soccer's totem pole (the Saints have never won a first-division title).
It has been that kind of a magical season, Leicester’s title chase is a vicarious victory for little guys everywhere -- you may call these sly Foxes underdogs if you like, but be sure you also call them the best team in all of England.