In 2015-16, Leicester City out of nowhere became the most interesting thing in the soccer world, winning the Premier League title along the way. One year later, it stands a better chance of being relegated than it does of repeating as champion, but suddenly it is again the most interesting thing going.
The legend of last season is etched into history.
Leicester, having barely escaped relegation in 2014-15, scraped wins on a weekly basis behind Jamie Vardy, an escapee from the English semipro leagues, and Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante, unfashionable afterthoughts from France. Combined with manager Claudio Ranieri’s wizardry and a defense made up of spare parts and rejects, the Foxes cruised to the most unlikely title in the annals of European soccer.
Leicester lost Kante in the offseason, to a big-money payday at Chelsea, but the rest of the squad stuck around for another year. It quickly became apparent, though, that whatever magic the Foxes had was gone. Leicester muddled through the fall, seemingly more focused on making it through an easy Champions League group. In the new year, it all fell apart. Leicester went six league games without scoring a goal, losing five of the six, and was dumped out of the FA Cup by a third-division team that was down to 10 men. When the Foxes dropped the first leg of their Champions League round of 16 tie against Sevilla, losing 2-1 and being dominated for much of the game, the club’s owner had seen enough and fired Ranieri less than a year after the title win.
It prompted an outcry from much of the soccer world. Manchester United manager Jose Mourinho even wore “CR” on his own tracksuit as a tribute. Ranieri had earned a place as a Leicester legend for orchestrating the magical title run; to dump him seemed crazy, even though the Foxes — now second to last in the league — seemed destined for relegation. Ownership was ridiculed for what seemed to be the apex of short-term, money-addled thinking.
That was barely three weeks ago. Since then, the club has appointed assistant manager Craig Shakespeare as the interim coach. Shakespeare made a small change to the starting lineup, replacing underwhelming winger Ahmed Musa, brought in last summer, with Shinji Okazaki, one of the club’s stalwarts from last year. And somehow, the combination of a new manager and Okazaki’s return has transformed Leicester. Since Ranieri’s firing, the club has two impressive wins in the league and managed to beat Sevilla 2-0 in the second leg of their tie to become the only English team to make the Champions League quarterfinals this year.
Can Leicester escape the relegation zone for good and, while doing that, also finagle its way into the later stages of the Champions League? Three weeks ago, it all seemed totally impossible. Suddenly, the Foxes are full of intrigue.
• There were no big surprises in the squad announced for the U.S. men’s national team World Cup qualifiers next weekend, but most troubling is the lack of fullbacks on the American roster. Coach Bruce Arena seems set to play aging DaMarcus Beasley at left back and an out-of-position center back at right back — not a recipe for success.
• If you tried to tune into a Liga MX game last weekend, you would have noticed that the whole league had gone missing. The reason was an impromptu referee strike after two players made contact with referees in midweek Copa MX matches. The refs, unhappy that the players had not been suspended for the maximum one year, walked out until the league extended the suspensions.
• The U.S. women’s national team doesn’t have either the Olympics or World Cup this summer, but reportedly the program is doing its best to create a summer tournament. Reports from Brazil have indicated the Americans will host a tournament with Brazil, Australia, and Japan — three of the best teams not committed to this summer’s European Championships — in late July and early August.
WEEKEND WATCH GUIDE
Premier League: Arsenal at West Brom, 7:30 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Arsenal has some serious ground to make up in the race for the top four. Five points separate the Gunners from Liverpool, in fourth, though Arsenal has two games in hand. The first of these is with West Brom and manager Tony Pulis, who seems to delight in having his team thwart Arsene Wenger’s men.
Premier League: Southampton at Tottenham, 9:15 a.m. Sunday, NBCSN. Tottenham’s post-Harry Kane crunch begins this week; the injured striker will be out at least a month. It’s a blow for the Spurs, as the team is in second place in the Premier League — a height it had never reached. Southampton, though, is always dangerous.
La Liga: Sevilla at Atlético Madrid, 11 a.m. Sunday, beIN Sports. Sevilla’s dreams of winning the Champions League have been quashed, and its dreams of challenging for the Spanish title appear to be slipping away as well. Now the goal is to stay ahead of fourth-place Atlético, which has struggled domestically this season. Five points separate the two; Sevilla is hoping to keep the cushion.
MLS: New York at Seattle, 6 p.m. Sunday, FS1. It’s been a rough start for the Sounders, last year’s MLS Cup champions. Seattle lost its opener to Houston, then needed a near-miracle comeback to get a draw against Montreal. Now it plays its first game at home in 2017, with New York — off to a perfect start — in town. Can Seattle right the ship?