Leicester City completed the impossible dream by upsetting the old guard to clinch a scarcely believable Premier League title triumph in the 2015-16 season.
The Foxes started the campaign among the favourites for relegation, reflected in pre-season odds of 5,000-1 to be crowned champions.
But led by wily tactician Claudio Ranieri, who won a top-flight title as a coach for the first time in his lengthy career, and inspired by the quality of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy and N’Golo Kante, Leicester defied the odds, the pundits and football logic to top the pile.
The same sceptics who wrote off Leicester’s chances last season are largely out in force again this time around, tipping the biggest clubs with their star managers and close-season signings to reign supreme.
Indeed, it does take a huge leap of faith to believe that such an eventuality can occur again, but Leicester’s fairytale gives hope to the rest of the league.
So discounting the bookmakers’ favourites – the ‘big six’ of Manchester United, Manchester City, Chelsea, Arsenal, Tottenham and Liverpool – who is best placed to replicate one of the unlikeliest sporting feats of all time?
IT’S HAMMER TIME
The leading contenders to cause an upset appear to be West Ham, who, under the tutelage of Slaven Bilic, caught the eye last term with an attractive style of play that threatened to yield Champions League football until they tailed off to finish seventh.
Crucially the Hammers have managed to keep their squad together, including star man Dimitri Payet, who returns to Upton Park having starred for hosts France at Euro 2016.
Retaining a player of Payet’s talent is a considerable signal of intent, while the club’s move to the Olympic Stadium will reap new financial rewards.
West Ham have also been active in the transfer market. Andre Ayew arrived for a club-record fee from Swansea City, while Havard Nordtveit, Sofiane Feghouli and Arthur Masuaku have bolstered Bilic’s options.
The ambition is plain to see. AC Milan’s Carlos Bacca and Lyon’s Alexandre Lacazette have also been among the club’s targets for a 20-goal-a-season striker that they have yet to land.
If West Ham were to succeed in luring a top-level number nine before the end of the month, that could be the catalyst for an assault on the top teams.
THE OTHER CONTENDERS
Everton are another side capable of breaking the established order this season.
The Toffees limped to a hugely disappointing 11th last term, and their failure to compete in the upper reaches of the table signalled the end for manager Roberto Martinez.
However, with the fresh investment of wealthy majority shareholder Farhad Moshiri, there is an air of optimism around Goodison Park.
Ronald Koeman has already been prised from Southampton and, while the Dutchman has yet to dig deep in the coffers, there is seemingly the opportunity to do so.
Everton now have cash to burn and, if they are able to spend wisely before the window slams shut, the season promises to be a bright one, based on Koeman’s coaching track record and the talented squad he has inherited
Perhaps the biggest problem Koeman faces is keeping hold of his best players. John Stones has already been snapped up by Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City, with Wales captain Ashley Williams his replacement, while top scorer Romelu Lukaku has also been linked with an exit.
“Now go and play like champions”
– Claudio Ranieri
— Premier League (@premierleague) August 9, 2016
One team used to having their top talent raided is Southampton and this close-season has been no different, with Victor Wanyama, Graziano Pelle and Sadio Mane joining Koeman in departing for pastures new.
But the Saints have often shown a canny ability to rebuild and go again. New coach Claude Puel still has plenty of talent available at his disposal, while new signings Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg and Nathan Redmond have the perfect platform to flourish.
If they do, then Saints fans could end up celebrating more than last season’s fine sixth-placed finish.
Leicester’s achievement came just two years after they were promoted from the Championship and one after a great escape from relegation.
Of this season’s promoted sides, managerless Hull City appear in disarray, while Burnley are once again struggling to compete financially against the established order.
Middlesbrough, though, have been busy in the transfer market and, while it remains hugely unlikely that Aitor Karanka’s side will challenge at the top, bringing in the likes of Alvaro Negredo, Antonio Barragan and Victor Valdes shows they mean business, and a top-10 finish is attainable. Once the 40-point mark has been reached, Leicester have shown that anything is possible.
When talking about a team ‘doing a Leicester’ perhaps it is wise to look no further than the defending champions themselves.
The chances of lightning striking twice are already being widely written off, but thus far the only loss to last season’s champions has been the – albeit hugely influential – Kante, with Vardy rejecting Arsenal’s advances and Mahrez still on the books.
The Premier League’s big guns have spent heavily to guard against a repeat of last season, but Leicester ran Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United close in a 2-1 loss in the Community Shield and new signing Ahmed Musa is an exciting addition to the Foxes’ attack.
Vardy recently spoke of the belief in the camp that last season was no fluke and that doubting Leicester made some observers look silly last term.
He said: “There are a lot of new managers coming in who purchased a lot of top quality players, so it will be good to go up against them to see how good we are, to play against them again and show that what we did last season can be repeated.”
In nine months’ time, perhaps Leicester will be celebrating another famous title triumph.
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