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Title contender, or just pretending? — Leicester

By AP - Jan 19,2016 - Last updated at Jan 19,2016

Leicester City players appluad the fans as they leave the pitch following the English Premier League football match between Aston Villa and Leicester City at Villa Park in Birmingham, on Saturday (AFP photo)

LONDON — A bet that could see former England great Gary Lineker on TV in his underwear is not a normal wager.

But how brave, or foolish, was the former Leicester striker to say he would host the first “Match of the Day” next season in his underpants if his old club won the Premier League?

The naked truth is that Lineker could be heading for an embarrassing Saturday night.

After narrowly avoiding relegation at the end of last season, Leicester hired a new manager in 64-year-old Claudio Ranieri, a popular coach with a wealth of experience but a dearth of silverware. Add the modest budget for transfers, and it’s not surprising the team was firmly marked down as a prime candidate for the drop.

Instead, Leicester have spent weeks at the top of the world’s richest league, and only a goal difference of three is currently keeping the club in second place below Arsenal. If not for a missed penalty in Saturday’s draw at Aston Villa, the Foxes could well be two points clear of the chasing pack.

Can they keep this going and create one of the biggest shocks in English football?

The arguments against them are predictable and well-rehearsed. Leicester have no real Premier League pedigree, no star players and no prospect of any big-name signings. It’s hard to imagine a top international player joining over the next two weeks and telling reporters “ever since I was a kid, it was my dream to play for Leicester.”

And in 30 years as a coach, Ranieri’s trophy cabinet is certainly not cluttered. An Italian Cup in 1996 from his time with Fiorentina and the 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia pretty much fills it.

However, none of this fazes a well-drilled Leicester side that are thoroughly enjoying their football and are free of expectations.

And that’s just the point. Leicester have none of the pressure that’s now ratcheting up on Arsenal, Manchester City and Manchester United as players in the glamour clubs head towards the business end of the season.

And a team that plays without fear is a dangerous opponent.

Leicester showed no fear when they hosted Premier League champion Chelsea, beating the Blues 2-1 in an impressive performance. The millionaire players of both Manchester clubs have been held to draws, and fourth-place Tottenham was beaten at White Hart Lane last week. Among the title contenders, only Arsenal have so far inflicted a defeat on Leicester.

On a purely footballing level, Leicester are good enough to win the league.

Arsenal, City and United fans found it amusing when “little Leicester” — Ranieri’s words — went to the top of the Premier League on November 21 after 13 games.

Nine matches and two months later, they’re not laughing any more.

Leicester are still up with the pacesetters and showing no signs of the sudden implosion and descent to mid-table mediocrity that was so widely predicted. What’s more, the argument that “this has never been done before” carries even less weight.

“If ‘little Leicester’ are looked down [on], it’s normal,” Ranieri said last week. “It’s not normal what Leicester are doing. It’s unbelievable. It’s fantastic and our fans are dreaming. The fans must continue to dream — we must continue to work hard.”

If they succeed, it will be very embarrassing for English football’s biggest clubs, their pampered players and their global sponsors.

 

But their embarrassment will be nothing compared to Lineker’s, as he is watched by a TV audience of several million in his underpants.

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