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The greatest upset: Champions Leicester break new ground for sporting underdogs

After their typically stirring 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford on Sunday, the travelling Leicester City fans struck up their familiar refrain.

“And now you’re gonna believe us, we’re gonna win the league.”

Claudio Ranieri and his unlikely heroes eased to the title at a relative canter, giving the wider football world ample time to get used to the label of “Leicester City – Premier League champions”.

As Tottenham lost their lead and their heads at Chelsea on Monday, that would-be status became reality. Still, it doesn’t feel entirely easy to believe them.

Footage of Jamie Vardy, eyes bulging and veins popping in record-breaking celebration, and Riyad Mahrez bamboozling a parade of unfortunate full-backs will now sit alongside iconic clips of the greatest sporting upsets.

Buster Douglas’ knockout of Mike Tyson; the USA’s “Miracle on Ice” against the USSR at the 1980 Winter Olympics; David Tyree’s “Helmet Catch” at Super Bowl XLII and others have company – and they are all surpassed.

In football, Montpellier’s 2011-12 Ligue 1 title triumph serves as a useful comparis
on, although Rene Girard’s relative minnows pipping Paris-Saint Germain in the first year of their Qatari takeover meant there were elements of the unknown for both sides.

Leicester, on the other hand, were a tiny David aiming a slingshot towards Goliath and his extended family at the Premier League’s top table, and their mastery of all-comers is comprehensive.

Tottenham, helmed by Mauricio Pochettino, came closest to stopping the fairytale. The big beasts of Chelsea, Manchester City, Manchester United and Arsenal – scooping the biggest shares in terms of domestic television money, sponsorship deals and Champions League revenue – were not even part of the conversation.

City, United and Chelsea can argue to be in various stages of transition, while Arsene Wenger at Arsenal stubbornly refuses to acknowledge one is necessary. However, it should not be remotely possible or even imaginable that Leicester should finish the season 30 points better off than previous champions Chelsea, with or without Jose Mourinho’s meltdown.

The Leicester story has been one of taking accepted norms and, much like most of their opponents this season, running them bloody mindedly into the ground.

Under Nigel Pearson, Leicester won seven of their final nine matches in 2014-15 to avoid relegation. Successor Ranieri, with three wins from six unbeaten games, tapped into the old adage that teams start one season as they finished the last, but these runs are not supposed to continue so long that you actually win the league.

A 5-2 home defeat to Arsenal felt like the moment that bubble burst. “We must begin again now and repeat this start to the season,” Ranieri said afterwards. They have never veered from this mission statement.

Robert Huth scored twice in a 3-1 February win at Manchester City – perhaps the moment above all other when the impossible suddenly seemed dizzyingly possible – and the giant German centre-back typifies the team nobody wanted. 

Huth was initially loaned from mid-table Stoke City, surplus to requirements. Danny Simpson and Danny Drinkwater were graduates of the Manchester United youth system but never realistic candidates for a first-team spot, while Vardy’s journey from non-league backwaters is well documented.

But this team of misfits, who always appeared beatable on paper but became fiercely imposing on grass, baulked at their own past failures and the modern logic that squad rotation is a must. 

Schmeichel, Simpson, Fuchs, Huth, Morgan, Mahrez, Drinkwater, Kante, Albrighton, Okazaki, Vardy: the men Ranieri trusted above all other to become a throwback title-winning XI that trips off the tongue. 

Leicester are no darlings of the football hipsters, languishing 18th in the Premier League in terms of possession and pass completion this season ahead of what proved to be a glorious weekend. The leaders on these metrics in Germany, France and Spain are Bayern Munich, PSG and Barcelona. 

It shows Ranieri and Leicester are not starting any trends. They have played unwaveringly to undervalued strengths and, like all the best underdogs, are a fabulous anomaly.

Their glory came not over 10 rounds or four quarters, but 36 matches and nine months of toil. 

We should marvel at the scale of an achievement that may never be topped.

Mon 2 May, 2016
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