There’s a surprising story line for Saturday’s Manchester United-Leicester City game. Against all odds, it’s a matchup of the top two teams in the Premier League — and Leicester, lowly Leicester, is the league leader.
It’s not just that the Foxes were not expected to challenge for the title. It’s that quite a few people expected them to be one of the league’s worst teams. Entering the season, Leicester City was mired in disaster.
The club won seven of its final nine games last year, escaping the bottom three in the standings in the process, but a bizarre scandal related to the team’s tour of Thailand threw the club into chaos. Three youth players, including manager Nigel Pearson’s son, were released as a result of the lurid saga, and the club’s ownership fired Pearson himself two weeks later.
In came former Chelsea manager Claudio Ranieri, who had just been fired as the coach of the Greek national team after a loss to the Faroe Islands, one of the most embarrassing upsets in the history of international football.
Given Ranieri’s reputation for ultra-defensive coaching, he seemed an odd choice for a Leicester team that had won by attacking; most wondered whether he’d make it through the season, and whether Leicester could escape relegation for the second year running. Instead, Leicester has not only been winning, it’s been doing so with the same attack-minded strategy as last season. The Foxes have shut out their opponents just twice all year, but they have scored in every single match and have scored two or more goals in 10 of their 13 games. Forward Jamie Vardy leads the Premier League with 13 goals and has scored in 10 consecutive matches; if he scores Saturday, he’ll break the league record for consecutive games with a goal.
A 5-2 loss to Arsenal in September stands as the only blemish on Leicester’s record, but therein lies the knock on the Foxes: that they have been the beneficiary of a very favorable schedule. That Arsenal match is the only one Leicester has played against last year’s top four teams.
Now comes the hard part. Between now and New Year’s Day, the Foxes play Manchester United, Swansea City, Chelsea, Everton, Liverpool and Manchester City — a nightmare schedule for any team.
Perhaps that’s why Ranieri, despite being on top of England, still has his sights set on earning the 40 points that virtually guarantee that Leicester will avoid relegation. After last week’s victory at Newcastle, Ranieri told reporters: “It’s important for us because it’s important we have 28 points; 12 [more] and we achieve our goal. After, we can speak about other things.”
For one week, though, his club can enjoy being kings of England.
Soccer short takes
• Gophers women’s soccer ended its season last week with a 1-0 loss to Loyola Marymount in the second round of the NCAA tournament. The Gophers had a difficult end to the season, winning only one of their final seven games, but things are looking up for 2016. The Gophers lose only two major contributors to graduation: defender Haley Helverson and forward Taylor Stainbrook.
• According to a report from local soccer website Northern Pitch, Ottawa Fury forward Tom Heinemann has signed a $150,000-per-year contract to join Tampa Bay for next season. It’s a sign of the growth of second-division soccer that Heinemann, who scored 12 goals in 2015, can stay in the second division but still earn more than many MLS players.
• The 2016 CONCACAF Olympics women’s soccer qualifiers, set for mid-February in Texas, were announced this week. The U.S. will play Mexico, Costa Rica and Puerto Rico in Group A, and the Americans are favored to easily sail through. Winning the group will be important, as the second-place team will likely play Canada in the semifinals — and winning a semifinal is the final hurdle to clear to qualify for the Olympics.
Weekend watch guide
Bundesliga: Hertha Berlin at Bayern Munich, 8:30 a.m. Saturday, FS1. Bayern Munich keeps rolling along, with 12 wins and a draw in 13 Bundesliga games, but Hertha has climbed up to fourth place. John Brooks, 22-year-old U.S. national team defender, will have his hands full with Bayern’s near-unstoppable attack.
Premier League: Manchester United at Leicester City, 11:30 a.m. Saturday, Ch. 11. Leicester is the best story in the Premier League, but the Foxes need to show they can get results against the best teams. Manchester United was without Wayne Rooney last week; the question now is whether his absence actually makes the team better.
MLS: Portland at Dallas, 4 p.m. Sunday, ESPN: Dallas has an excellent home record, but it’ll need a minor miracle after losing the first leg of the conference finals 3-1 in Portland. Dallas overcame a 2-1 deficit in its semifinal against Seattle but now faces an even taller order in this round. Portland has one foot in its first MLS championship game.
MLS: Columbus at New York, 6:30 p.m. Sunday, FS1: Columbus scored early and late in Sunday’s first leg, giving it a commanding 2-0 lead in this game. The Crew’s shutout at home was important; if prolific striker Kei Kamara can steal a tiebreaking away goal in this game, New York would need at least three goals to go through to the final — a tall order.