Posted by: Mike Cornelius | May 1, 2016

The Miracle In The East Midlands

It is a story so improbable, an outcome so astonishing, as to serve as definitive proof of the old adage that truth is stranger than fiction. It is David beating Goliath, not in a single battle, but over the entire course of a thirty-eight match season that stretches from August of one year until May of the next. While they missed their first chance to settle the matter on Sunday, when they drew Manchester United 1-1 at home, it is now virtually certain that in the coming days, possibly as early as Monday, the Foxes of Leicester City FC will win the 2015-16 English Premier League title, claiming the crown jewel of British soccer.

The EPL is the most-watched soccer league in the world, with matches broadcast to more than two hundred countries, including the United States on the NBC Sports Network. Matches are almost always played before full houses, and fans of the twenty clubs in the EPL bring a passion to the stands that far exceeds that of even the most loyal NFL tailgaters. Since its founding in 1992, forty-seven different clubs have played in the EPL, because at the end of each season the bottom three in the standings face the dreaded punishment of relegation down a level to the Football League, switching places in the EPL with the top three clubs from the FL that earn promotion to the Premier League.

Just thirteen months ago Leicester City was staring at the doom of relegation. Three-quarters of the way through the 2014-15 schedule the Foxes were dead last in the EPL standings. That was not an entirely surprising result, for Leicester City had only just won promotion back to the Premier League prior to the start of last season after wandering in the Football League wilderness for a decade. Prior to that the club had been through bankruptcy. Like many of the smaller, underfunded clubs that play in the shadow of the Big Four of English soccer, Leicester City seemed destined to spend years stepping up and down the top two rungs of the game.

The big story in England in early April 2014 was the reinternment of the remains of King Richard III, whose coffin had been found under a parking lot in Leicester two years earlier. Just days after that ceremony another person with a royal name, the local football club’s Andy King, scored the winning goal in a victory over West Ham. Leicester City than went on a remarkable late season run, winning seven of its final nine games to climb all the way up to fourteenth in the standings, safely avoiding relegation.

In the EPL’s brief offseason, while the league’s top finishers continued on in UEFA Champions League play, Leicester City’s owners hired Italian Claudio Ranieri as the team’s new manager. At the time the move seemed of little import. Ranieri had recently been fired as manager of the Greek national team, and he set a modest goal for the 2015-16 season of winning 40 points, or about what would probably be needed to again avoid relegation.

But Ranieri quickly bonded with his players, using such simple inducements as free pizza after every shutout. Leicester City suffered just one defeat in its first nine games, and suddenly fans used to hoping their team would remain relevant were looking at the EPL standings with newfound interest. As 2015 gave way to a new year the Foxes parlayed a win over Chelsea and a tie with Liverpool into a share of first place with Arsenal.

The power of the EPL’s Big Four teams is impossible to ignore. For all the clubs that have played in the league since its founding in 1992, all of the championships save one have been won by Manchester United (13), Chelsea (4), Arsenal (3), and Manchester City (2). The powerhouse teams from London and Manchester, England’s two largest urban areas, have resources that dwarf those of teams like Leicester City. Their deep pockets allow them to attract top talent from around the world with both rich contracts and the promise of playing not just in the EPL but in UEFA Champions League games as well. But perhaps that worked to Leicester City’s advantage this year. As the season came down the stretch the Foxes had only their Premier League games to worry about, ensuring that they were relatively fresh for each contest.

Entering Sunday’s home match against Manchester United, Leicester City had not lost since mid-February. Seven wins and three ties since Valentine’s Day pushed the Foxes seven points ahead of Tottenham Hotspur and nine clear of Arsenal. Along the way striker Jamie Vardy had netted twenty-two goals, third in the league; while goaltender Kasper Schmeichel was tied for first with fifteen shutouts.

The three points earned for a win would have been enough to clinch the title, but the visitors struck first, scoring in just the eighth minute when Anthony Martial found the net inside the far post, beating Schmeichel. Then before the capacity crowd had time to become too concerned, Leicester City’s captain Wes Morgan put himself in perfect position to redirect a free kick from Danny Drinkwater. Morgan’s header beat the United goaltender to level the match at the seventeenth minute.

With one point for the tie the Foxes lead is now eight points. Should Tottenham Hotspur lose to or draw with Chelsea on Monday, the title will belong to the unlikeliest of champions. Even if the Spurs win on Monday, they would have to add two additional victories in their final contests and the Foxes would have to drop both of their remaining matches for their positions in the standings to be reversed.

Sometime very soon it should become official for the little team from the East Midlands. The 5,000 to 1 long shot will be champions of the English Premier League. Consider that the Titans, 49ers and Browns are rated the most improbable winners of the next Super Bowl, at a mere 100 to 1. British bookmakers have been scrambling for the past few months, offering buyouts to those few who had bet on Leicester City. Still one of the largest of the legal English bookies is reportedly on the hook for nearly $3 million. That price tag means that while fans everywhere can rejoice in one of this year’s best sports stories, it is fair to say that not everyone will be happy when to the astonishment of all, the Foxes win this hunt.

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