Sports

Leicester City defies huge odds, wins Premier title

Leicester City fans celebrate in the Market Tavern in Leicester after seeing their side crowned English Premier League soccer champions following Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw against Chelsea. The match resulted in Leicester City winning the Premier League, Monday May 2, 2016.
Leicester City fans celebrate in the Market Tavern in Leicester after seeing their side crowned English Premier League soccer champions following Tottenham Hotspur’s 2-2 draw against Chelsea. The match resulted in Leicester City winning the Premier League, Monday May 2, 2016. The Associated Press

Leicester City, which won promotion to England’s Premier League only two years ago and flirted with being relegated right back out of the top division last spring, capped one of the most remarkable seasons in soccer history without kicking a ball on Monday. It clinched its first Premier League title when second-place Tottenham tied at Chelsea.

Leicester City had missed a chance to clinch the title outright when it tied, 1-1, at Manchester United on Sunday. But Tottenham’s 2-2 tie just over 24 hours later did the job just the same. Leicester leads the Spurs in the standings by 7 points with two matches to go, meaning the Foxes cannot be caught.

The results sparked delirious, beer-soaked celebrations in Leicester, where fans gathered in pubs and restaurants to watch Monday’s match and then poured into the streets when it was over. Leicester City’s players watched the game at the home of striker Jamie Vardy, and a video posted to the Twitter account of defender Christian Fuchs showed them roaring and dancing at the final whistle.

When the match ended, social media did what it does to mark such occasions.

The mood was considerably darker at Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea’s rally from a two-goal halftime deficit – capped by Eden Hazard’s curling shot into the top corner in the 83rd minute – sent a hot-tempered match between the London rivals off the rails.

Rather than press for a winning goal after Chelsea had tied the score, Tottenham’s players seemed intent on exacting revenge for their ruined title hopes. Spurs midfielder Erik Lamela stomped on a fallen Chelsea player’s hand. The coaching staffs traded angry words on the sideline. And Eric Dier scythed down Hazard as he cut across the middle.

When the final whistle at last ended the match, the teams traded punches and shoves at the mouth of the tunnel to the locker rooms. Tottenham players received nine yellow cards in the match, Chelsea three. But few in Leicester surely noticed; they were dancing and hugging and rejoicing in their unlikely championship, the first top-division crown in their club’s 132-year history.

That is not to say that Leicester City’s championship in the world’s richest soccer league comes as a complete surprise. The Foxes have spent most of the season in first place – they lost only three times in the league – and fought off challenge after challenge for months.

Since November, when the Foxes became an unlikely fixture at the top of the standings, rivals and experts and fans waited every week for a sign that the team would falter, that it was not up to a task usually reserved for England’s bigger, richer clubs – teams like United and City from Manchester, like Chelsea and Arsenal from London. And every week, Leicester, a 5,000-to-1 shot to win the title when the season began, has proved its doubters wrong.

One bookmaker, Sky Bet, told The Associated Press it paid out 4.6 million pounds ($6.8 million) to bettors who picked Leicester to win the title, with 128 putting money on the team at those enormous odds.

The Foxes won at Manchester City and Tottenham, against Chelsea and Liverpool, at Upton Park and Selhurst Park. They earned points in the Northeast and on the South Coast, scored victories on the road and at home in the East Midlands. A timeline of Leicester’s title run reads like a fairy tale, complete with heroes and villains but also lucky bounces and timely goals, pizza parties and silly sayings.

The champions’ roster is a blend of good genes (goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel is the son of former Manchester United keeper Peter Schmeichel), grit (midfielders Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kanté) and late-blooming stars. Vardy, 29, who was playing in the fifth division as recently as 2012, set a Premier League record by scoring in 11 straight games this season, but he missed the last two matches – including Sunday’s game at United – after his temper earned him a suspension. The French-Algerian midfielder Riyad Mahrez, acquired for a song in 2014, played well enough this season to be voted the Premier League player of the year ahead of players who are paid multiples of what he earns.

Those disparate parts became a championship whole under Leicester’s well-traveled Italian coach, Claudio Ranieri. Ranieri, like his club, had a second-tier history: Despite having challenged for league championships at some of Europe’s biggest clubs – including Juventus and Roma in Italy, and Chelsea in England – Ranieri had never won a top-flight title.

“He’s almost 70, and he hasn’t won anything,” former Chelsea manager José Mourinho hissed about Ranieri in 2008. Ranieri was 56 at the time. But Mourinho was right.

Now, however, Ranieri, hired last summer after Nigel Pearson was fired, has won something extraordinary. This year’s Premier League title is the first top-division championship for Leicester City, which was founded in 1884 and joined the Football League in 1890. Its previous high-water mark was a runner-up finish – in 1929.

In a postmatch news conference Monday, Chelsea manager Guus Hiddink said Ranieri had called him after the match.

“He called us and thanked us for what we did, especially in the second half,” Hiddink said. “I congratulated him for being champion.”

Leicester will celebrate its championship when it returns home for its final home match of the season, a now meaningless kickaround against struggling Everton next weekend. The Foxes close the season in two weeks at Chelsea, but their performance has ensured an even bigger prize.

Next season, Leicester City will make its first appearance in the UEFA Champions League.

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