Domenica, 07 Febbraio 2016 20:11

<div>Sport24.co.za | It's now or never for Leicester</div>

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London - The wealth of elite clubs and financial restrictions onupstarts were thought to be locking in the established order in English soccerand suppressing ambition.

Just gate-crashing the Premier League's top-four to

gain access toChampions League riches seemed an impossible feat for aspirational sides.

But a kaleidoscope has shaken the world's richest footballcompetition in a season, defying not only the bookmakers but logic as well.

After 25 games it still seems unfathomable to have to delve intothe lower reaches of the standings to find Chelsea in 13th place from where thedefending champions are struggling to rise.

But it is the continued presence of Leicester at the summit to becherished. With predictable leaders in Spain, Germany and France, Leicester isreinforcing the Premier League's status as the world's most engrossing andcompetitive domestic competition.

Leicester responds to each prediction that its bubble will burstby producing results like Saturday: Stunning Manchester City 3-1 and sendingthe 2012 and 2014 champions sliding to fourth.

Leicester winning the top flight for the first time in May wouldbe the greatest title triumph in English football history. The Foxes startedthe season as 5,000-1 title no-hopers but are now 7-4 favourites with somebookmakers.

"It's either this year or never," manager ClaudioRanieri has told his players.

Adding to the state of flux in England is Tottenham occupyingsecond place five points behind Leicester — its highest position at this stageof the season for 31 years. Unlike Leicester, the north London club has beenchampion of England, though only in 1951 and 1961.

There has been a surprise champion before from the east Midlands.Nottingham Forest was promoted to the top flight and instantly won the 1978title. But that was in an era when the disparities are not as vast ascurrently.

With a team that cost around $30 million, Leicester beat a ManCity line-up on Saturday that cost more than 10 times that to assemble.Leicester generated around $150 million in revenue last season while City mademore than $500 million.

The richest team in England is Manchester United. Despite vastspending on players and a 2014-15 turnover of around $580 million, United isfifth in the standings, a dozen points behind Leicester with 13 games to go.

At this stage last season Leicester was rock bottom. Only in Aprildid Leicester start its rise out of the relegation zone, although manager NigelPearson was still fired and the less temperamental Ranieri was brought in.

The brains behind the moulding of the team is Steve Walsh, theformer Leicester player turned head of recruitment and assistant manager, whounearthed gems like Jamie Vardy.

The striker was a 1-million-pound gamble when he was plucky fromnon-league obscurity in 2012. Vardy has proved to be a bargain buy with aleague-leading 18 goals. Riyad Mahrez has shared the plaudits as the Algeriamidfielder has unsettled defences with his searing pace while also contributing14 league goals.

But it's an all-round team effort, exemplified by aBarcelona-esque slick passing sequence in the 2-0 win over Liverpool last week.The defensive midfield shield, Danny Drinkwater, and goalkeeper KasperSchmeichel have been integral to Leicester conceding only twice in seven leaguegames.

All-round energy and pace in the central England team has seen teamsas mighty as Man City crumble.

"Everyone feels they are participating, so playing badlymeans betraying the others," Ranieri told Italian newspaper Corriere dellaSera in a weekend interview.

"I never once had to tell someone off for being lazy."

Leicester's Thai owners were dismissed as barmy for hiring Ranieriin July. The Italian had been away from the Premier League for 11 years sincebeing jettisoned by Chelsea to make way for Jose Mourinho. And he had been outof work for more than a year after being fired by Greece during a woeful startby a top-ranked team in the easiest-ever European Championship qualifyingformat.

But from being a figure of fun and favourite to be sacked thisseason, Ranieri is flavour of the month again.

How has he achieved it?

One of the first tasks for the manager known at Chelsea as the"Tinkerman" for his constant changes to the line-up was winning overwary Leicester players.

"I realized they were afraid of Italian tacticalapproaches," Ranieri recalled.

"So I told the players that I trusted them and would speakvery little of tactics. It was important to me that they all ran hard."

Beat third-place Arsenal on Sunday and Leicester will be closer tohanding Ranieri the most satisfying end to the season in May: Lifting the trophyat his former Chelsea home.

"I always tell my players to find the fire withinthemselves," Ranieri said. "A chance like this will never come roundagain. Seek that fire, don't be ashamed of it."

Who will be ashamed?

Illustrious clubs beaten to the trophy by a team on acomparatively minuscule budget. And pundits who tipped Leicester for the dropand Ranieri for the sack.

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