Tag Archives: Leicester City

Predicting Premier League finishing positions (10-1)

In my previous post I made my predictions on who would finish in the bottom half of the Premier League table (20-11). In this post I will predict who I think will finish in the top half of the Premier League table, who will qualify for the Champions League and most importantly who I think will win the Premier League title. So let’s start at 10th place and work our way upwards…

10. Southampton – It shows the progress that Southampton have made that another top ten finish plus a League Cup Final appearance which they were desperately unlucky to lose was not enough to save manager Claude Puel’s job. The main problem for Southampton was scoring goals especially at home where only rock bottom Sunderland scored fewer. But Manolo Gabbiadini started well and he and Charlie Austin – if he is fit – will solve that problem. They are probably fighting a losing battle to keep Virgil van Dijk but even without him new manager Mauricio Pellegrino should have enough to keep the Saints in the top ten. 

9. West Ham – West Ham had an unhappy season last time. The move to the Olympic Stadium had teething problems with crowd trouble and fans and players struggled to adapt. For a lot of the season it looked like they were going to be in a relegation struggle. This season should be better. The new signings – Pablo Zabaleta, Joe Hart, Marko Arnautovic and Javier Hernandez – look sensible and they will be more used to their new home. I expect West Ham to get their League position back down to single figures.

8. Leicester City – After four seasons where they won promotion, staged the great escape, won the Premier League title against all odds, then botched their title defence but reached the Champions League Quarter Finals Leicester fans might want a quiet life. I think they will get it. It helps that they will not be the target for scalp hunters that they were last season. They might lose Riyad Mahrez but he was not the force he was the season before last and it is significant that no one has bid for Jamie Vardy this summer. In 2015-16 Leicester over achieved in winning the title and last season they under achieved in finishing 12th. This season they will find their true level as a solid lower top ten team. 

7. Everton – Everton were in a League of their own last season eight points behind sixth but fifteen points ahead of eighth. While I think they will keep seventh place I suspect they will be further away from the top six and nearer the rest of the pack than they were last season. Losing Romelu Lukaku is a huge blow and I don’t think Wayne Rooney who is past his best is an ideal replacement. Jordan Pickford and Michael Keane are interesting signings and they might sell Ross Barkley and sign Gylfi Sigurdsson before the transfer window closes. Participation in the Europa League won’t help and seventh is probably the best they can do.

6. Liverpool – Jurgen Klopp managed to guide Liverpool back to the Champions League (well the qualifying round anyway) last season but the task will be harder this season. Liverpool had the advantage of not being in Europe last season and the squad does not appear to have the strength in depth to challenge on two fronts this season. Personally if Barcelona are offering £90 million for Philippe Coutinho I would take the money and sign four £20 million players to give the squad the depth it badly needs. They did not lose a League game to a fellow top six team last season but that is surely unsustainable and I suspect that Liverpool will finish in the Europa League zone this season.

5. Tottenham – Tottenham have been the best team in the Premier League over the last two seasons (though they did not win the title) but they might have to go backwards before they go forwards. The move to Wembley this season will seriously hinder them – their European form there last season was terrible – while as of this writing they have made zero signings in the close season and lost Kyle Walker. In football if you stand still you go backwards and that is what will happen with Tottenham. They still have Delie Alli and Harry Kane and will be in the race for a Champions League spot but I think they will just miss out. 

4. Arsenal – For the first time in 20 years Arsenal are not in the Champions League. That season (1997-98) they won the League and Cup double but I doubt that happens again. Alexander Lacazette is the star signing but free transfer Sead Kolasinsc is the more interesting signing judging by his substitute appearance in Sunday’s Community Shield. Two problems – the contract situation of Alexis Sanchez and Mesut Ozil and if they get off to a bad start the whole Arsene Wenger debate will resurface. Suspect they will regain their Champions League spot but still look a bit below the top three. 

3. Chelsea – All does not appear well at Stamford Bridge. Eden Hazard will miss the start of the season, Diego Costa looks like he is on his way out and manager Antonio Conte is grumbling about the depth (or lack of) in the squad and is talking about avoiding a “Mourinho season” – referring to Chelsea’s inept title defence of two seasons ago. I doubt Chelsea will sink as low this time but they don’t look like a title retaining team. They will have to cope with the rigours of a European campaign – unlike last season. It will be interesting to see how Alvaro Morata adapts to the Premier League but they look unlikely to defend the title.

2. Manchester City – Judging by the hype on his arrival Pep Guadiola was going to lead City to a Premier League/Champions League double without breaking a sweat. Of course nothing of the sort happened and they were no nearer the Champions last season than the season before – in both seasons they trailed the title winners by fifteen points and sometimes the defence was a source of comic entertainment. Guadiola has taken action by signing a new goalkeeper (Ederson) and three new defenders (Kyle Walker, Danilo and Benjamin Mendy). Are these the right players? Some grumbling City fans on Twitter were saying they would rather have England women’s right back Lucy Bronze than Walker. Suspect that they are joking but it does not show confidence in Walker. They need the new defence to bed in quickly, Vincent Kompany to stay fit and John Stones to cut out the errors. For them to win the title that might be too many needs. Watch out for Gabriel Jesus though. This player is a future star. 

1. Manchester United – Ironically last season United had the opposite problem to their neighbours. The defence was solid but the attack apart from Zlatan Ibrahimovic was toothless. They scored fewer League goals last season than Bournemouth – and fewer at home than relegated Hull. Enter £75 million striker Romelu Lukaku. Some people say that Lukaku is just a rabbit killer. I don’t agree but even if he is that is just what United need as they did not do much rabbit killing last season – especially at home. Bournemouth, Burnley, Hull. Stoke, Swansea, West Brom and West Ham all gained draws at Old Trafford last season mainly because United did not take their chances in games they dominated. With all due respect those are the bread and butter games that title challengers MUST win. If Lukaku can turn those draws into victories he repays his fee. Add to that the signing of Nemanja Matic from Chelsea – which Chelsea could live to regret – that Paul Pogba might have adapted to the Premier League, Marcus Rashford will keep improving and José Mourinho’s tradition of having a better second season in charge and you have my tips for the title – just. 

I suspect that the key to the season is will Lukaku improve United’s striking weakness or will City’s new defence solve their weakness in that department? My prediction is for Lukaku to have the impact on United that Robin van Pierse did in their last title winning season (2012-13) and bring the title back to Old Trafford.

Why recent history is a good omen for Christmas number one Chelsea

To quote John Lennon “So this is Christmas”. And as Christmas Day approaches Antonio Conte’s Chelsea sit proudly on top of the Premier League tree. But the question is will they still be there when it matters next May? In theory the omens are mixed but in practice they are very favourable for Chelsea.

This is the 25th season of Premier League football since the breakaway League was founded back in 1992. Of the previous 24 seasons twelve of the leaders at Christmas went on to win the title the next May. So on that basis there is only a 50 per cent chance that this season’s title is heading for Stamford Bridge. 

But it’s not as unfavorable for Chelsea as those statistics suggest. Firstly in recent seasons the pendulum has swung in favour of the Christmas League leaders. In the first twelve Premier League seasons (1992-2003) only three Christmas Day leaders – Manchester United (twice) and Blackburn Rovers went on to win the title. But in the next twelve Premier League seasons (2004-15)  nine of the twelve Christmas Day leaders went on to win the title – Manchester United (three times), Manchester City, last season’s shock troops Leicester City and significantly Chelsea themselves (four times). In fact every time Chelsea have topped the table at Christmas they have gone on to win the title. 

The other thing in Chelsea’s favour – apart from their current eleven game winning streak in the Premier League – is the size of their lead at the top – six points over Liverpool. In the previous twenty four seasons of Premier League football only four teams have had a bigger lead on Christmas Day than Chelsea have now – Manchester United (twelve points in 1993 and eight points in 2000) Chelsea themselves (nine points in 2005) and Newcastle (ten points in 1995). Of those four only Newcastle – in one of the most infamous bottle jobs in football history – failed to win the title. And that was a club that had (and still have) failed to win the title since 1927. The Newcastle players and especially manager Kevin Keegan could not cope with the pressure. But the core of this Chelsea team won the title as recently as 2015 and it is highly unlikely that this team will bottle the title. Nor will manager Conte who has title winning experience in Serie A with Juventus. 

One oddity will have Arsenal fans clutching at straws. The Gunners are the only club to have won the Premier League title, led the table at Christmas but not done both in the same season. They led the League at Christmas in 2002 and 2007 but did not win the title. When they did win the title (1998, 2002 and 2004) they did not top the table at Christmas (not even the 2003-4 “Invincibles” achieved the feat of topping the table at Christmas). Unfortunately for Arsenal they trail Chelsea by nine points and have still to go to Stamford Bridge so their chances are slim to say the least. 

Whether or not Chelsea win the title they have almost certainly achieved one of owner Roman Abramovich’s pre season targets. Last season Chelsea finished a dismal tenth and out of the Champions League for the first time since season 2002-3 – the last season before the Abramovich takeover. But of the previous twenty four Christmas League leaders only one – Aston Villa in 1998 who collapsed to sixth twenty two points behind Champions Manchester United – did not finish in one of the top four spots that give a club Champions League qualification. And the chances of Chelsea finishing outside of the top four are practically nil. 

It is not often both current form and recent historical precedent point to the same event happening. But both suggest it will take either a spectacular Chelsea collapse or at least a ten game winning streak by one of their rivals to deny Chelsea the title. It could happen – Newcastle collapsed spectacularly in 1996 and Arsenal went on winning streaks in 1998 and 2002. But it is much more likely that the title is heading to Stamford Bridge again. 

Finally I would like to say Merry Christmas to everyone who reads me. Have a wonderful day! 

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 2)

This is part two of my list of key games in Leicester City’s amazing Premier League title winning season. I will list what were in my opinion the key games (not all Leicester’s) from the second half of the season (January 2nd – May 2nd).

1. Tottenham 0 Leicester 1. This game won by a goal from unlikely scorer Robert Huth was important first because it ended a slight wobble (no goals in Leicester’s last three League games) and second it was an away win against the team that turned out to be their main rivals for the title.

2. Leicester 3 Stoke 0. Important because Vardy ended a six game goalless streak and this win took Leicester back to the top of the table where – as it turned out – they would stay.

3. Arsenal 0 Chelsea 1. Arsenal could have knocked Leicester off the top spot the very next day. But their fragile temperament was exposed again. An early red card for Per Mertesacker and a goal by Diego Costa gave outgoing champions Chelsea the “double” over Arsenal and raised question marks about Arsenal’s ability to sustain a title challenge.

4. Leicester 2 Liverpool 0. Two goals by Vardy – one a goal of the season candidate – gave Leicester revenge over one of the two teams to have beaten them in the League and maintained their three point lead.

5. Arsenal 0 Southampton 0. Another bad night for Arsenal. They huffed and puffed but ran into a great performance from Saints keeper Fraser Forster. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and to their fans horror were below bitter rivals Tottenham in the table.

6. Manchester City 1 Leicester 3. This was the game. The game that made people sit up and take Leicester seriously. A seriously impressive performance with two goals by Huth and one by Mahrez put Leicester five points clear at the top. City would have gone top had they won but this game led to the end of their title challenge.

7. Arsenal 2 Leicester 1. Heartbreak for Leicester. 1-0 up and playing well until Danny Simpson was sent off. Even so Leicester looked like hanging on for a deserved point until sub Danny Wellbeck scored in the fifth minute of injury time. Arsenal celebrated like they had won the League – even taking dressing room selfies! A kick to the solar plexus for Leicester who now faced a real test of character.

8. Manchester City 1 Tottenham 2. This game showed that Tottenham were for real. Goals by Harry Kane and Erik Lamela gave Tottenham a huge win a “double” over City and meant there were just two points between Leicester, Tottenham and Arsenal at the top of the table. The heat was on…

9. Leicester 1 Norwich 0. And this was one of the key games of the season. Leicester struggled for 89 minutes and looked like dropping two points. But instead substitute Leonardo Ulloa scored to give Leicester the ugly, late 1-0 win that Ferguson’s Manchester United and Mourinho’s Chelsea specialised in. Wins like this win titles.

10. Manchester United 3 Arsenal 2. Another disaster for Arsenal embarrassed by 18 year old Marcus Rashford who scored two and had one assist on his Premier League debut. Arsenal were now five points behind Leicester and in trouble.

The next three games were all on one night – March 2nd. Leicester had been held 2-2 by West Brom the previous night and Tottenham had a chance to go top of the table while Arsenal and City had a chance to make up ground. Incredibly they all lost.

11. West Ham 1 Tottenham 0. West Ham were the seasons spoilers and were at it again. On a raucous night at Upton Park a goal by Michail Antonio prevented Tottenham from going to the top of the table.

12. Arsenal 1 Swansea 2. Of all Arsenal’s flops this was the worst. Swansea prioritising their relegation six pointer against Norwich on the next Saturday fielded a weakened team lost an early goal and still grabbed a famous victory. The natives at the Emeriates were getting seriously restless.

13. Liverpool 3 Manchester City 0. City had beaten Liverpool in the League Cup Final the previous Sunday but Liverpool gained instant revenge with a crushing win. City were now ten points behind Leicester and after this incredible night Leicester’s title win started to seem – to quote WWE star Randy Orton –  “destiny”.

14. Tottenham 2 Arsenal 2. The biggest most hyped North London Derby in years produced a result that suited only Leicester. Tottenham should have won and gone to the top of the table – they were 2-1 up against ten men – but Alexis Sanchez’s late equaliser gave Arsenal a point. Instead of being top Tottenham ended the day five points behind after Leicester won 1-0 at Watford (Mahrez of course!)

15. Leicester 1 Newcastle 0. Leicester had one piece of luck towards the end of the season. They usually played before Tottenham so if they won the pressure was on Tottenham to catch up and if they slipped up Tottenham still had to win to take advantage. But on this occasion Tottenham played first. They won putting the pressure on Leicester. Add to that Newcastle – hitherto a shambles – had a new manager in Rafael Benitez and new managers sometimes give struggling teams a lift. But a brilliant bicycle kick goal by Shinji Okazaki restored Leicester’s five point cushion.

16. Liverpool 1 Tottenham 1. A point at Anfield is usually a good result but as Leicester were grinding out 1-0 wins Tottenham really needed a win. They played before Leicester this weekend but instead of cutting the lead to two points they only cut it to four. Next day Leicester had yet another 1-0 win – this time over Southampton. They were seven points clear with six games to play…

17. Leicester 2 West Ham 2. At half time Leicester were 1-0 up – Vardy again – and all was going well. Then Vardy got himself sent off for diving and everything changed. West Ham – who had played spoilers all season – scored in the 84th and 86th minutes to stun the King Power Stadium. But in the fifth minute of injury time Leicester were awarded a controversial penalty. Ulloa cooly converted to turn a morale denting defeat into a fighting draw. But Tottenham looked seriously impressive at Stoke the next night the gap was now five points and talismanic striker Vardy was suspended for two games (the extra game was for dissent after his sending off). The pressure was back on.

18. Leicester 4 Swansea 0. Leicester got a lucky break – an error by one of the best defenders in the League Ashley Williams who gave the ball to Mahrez of all people! – but once in front they played like Champions to score their biggest league win of the season. Tottenham had to catch up again…

19. Tottenham 1 West Brom 1. And they couldn’t. They took the lead in the first half but could not increase it and the longer the game went on the more nervous Tottenham got. When the equaliser came it was not a surprise. This meant if Leicester won at Old Trafford the title would be theirs…

20. Manchester United 1 Leicester 1. Which they could not do. But considering they fell behind had Danny Drinkwater sent off and they were playing a United team who had to win to help their own Champions League ambitions this was a good result. Captain Wes Morgan scored the goal that meant Tottenham had to win at Chelsea or the fairytale would come true.

21. Chelsea 2 Tottenham 2. And we know what happened here. Tottenham 2-0 up at half time looked like they would make Leicester have to beat Everton on Saturday to win the title. But like Liverpool at Crystal Palace on another May Monday night in 2014 they lost the lead and the plot ending the game with nine players being booked. And to show how amazing football is Chelsea’s equaliser was scored by last season’s player of the year Eden Hazard who had a terrible season just like his team. He had not scored a Premier League goal until Chelsea’s game at Bournemouth the previous week – Chelsea’s 34th game of the season. But his strike with seven minutes to go completed the fairytale and made him a Leicester hero.

So ends the story of what must be the most amazing story in football history. The Champions of Europe’s big five Leagues are Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich*, either Barcelona, Atletico Madrid or Real Madrid, and Leicester City. It still does not seem right. But congratulations to Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester players. Whatever happens now they are in the history books for ever and will never be forgotten…

*Bayern have not yet clinched the German title but five points clear with two games to go a win at Ingolstadt on Saturday will clinch the title for Pep Guardiola’s team.

Key games in the Leicester miracle (part 1)

The unthinkable has happened. Leicester City who started the season at 5000-1 to win the Premier League title, were favourites for relegation pre season and whose manager Claudio Ranieri was rated favourite to be the first Premier League manager to be sacked have won the Premier League. In my opinion the biggest shock in sport since Nottingham Forest won the title in 1978 (see previous post “Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands Miracle”). I know you get shocks in sport. But they are usually in one off Cup ties or fights (ie Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson or Holly Holm beating Ronda Rousey). But Leicester’s success is in a gruelling 38 game August to May marathon. There are no shortcuts to winning the title. Whoever wins it thoroughly deserves to. And Leicester do.

But how have they done it? I decided to pick out in my opinion what the key games were in the season (not all Leicester games).  This is quite a long list so I have split it in two. In this part : The key Premier League games in the first 19 rounds of matches (August 8- December 29).

1. Leicester 4 Sunderland 2. Must start with Leicester’s first game. Expected to achieve nothing but try and avoid relegation Leicester roared into a 3-0 lead in the first 25 minutes (two from Riyad Mahrez and one from Jamie Vardy a sign of things to come). The game finished 4-2 and can be called a declaration of intent. No one was paying attention for on the same day this happened…

2. Chelsea 2 Swansea 2. Enough has been written about this  game already but Chelsea’s failure to win and the Mourinho/Carneiro shambles was the first sign of a key early season event.  The implosion of the reigning champions. Arsenal fans enjoyed it. Until the next day…

3. Arsenal 0 West Ham 2. In a season of shocks the first one. Arsenal were convinced the signing of Petr Cech from Chelsea was the key to winning the title but his debut was poor and a West Ham team including 16 year old Reece Oxford produced a famous away win. Not their last either.

4. Manchester City 3 Chelsea 0.The first heavyweight clash of the season turned into a catch-weight contest. City were awesome Chelsea were awful. City looked like they would take advantage of Chelsea’s implosion and romp away with the title…

5. Chelsea 1 Crystal Palace 2. It’s one thing losing away to Manchester City but to Crystal Palace? At home? A sign that things were going seriously wrong for Chelsea.

6. Leicester 3 Aston Villa 2.This game defined two seasons. Since their first day win Leicester had won one and drew two without people noticing. When Villa were 2-0 up with 18 minutes to go it looked like Leicester’s unbeaten run was over. Instead goals by Ritchie de Laet, Vardy and Nathan Dyer propelled Leicester to a sensational victory. Leicester gained confidence, Villa lost it. In my opinion the key game of the season for both Leicester and Villa who went down without a whimper.

7. Chelsea 2 Arsenal 0. A sign of Arsenal’s mental fragility. The Gunners allowed themselves to be provoked by Diego Costa losing both the game and two men throwing doubts yet again on their ability to cope with the pressure of a title race.

8. Stoke 2 Leicester 2. Leicester up to their old tricks again. 2-0 down at half time but yet another fightback brought goals by Mahrez and Vardy and showed Leicester’s “never say die” spirit.

9. Manchester City 1 West Ham 2. City had won five out of five scoring eleven and conceding none. They looked unstoppable… until West Ham who had already won at Arsenal and Liverpool caused more mayhem going 2-0 up. City pulled one back before half time but their aura of invincibility had gone and did not return.

10. Southampton 2 Leicester 2. And again. By now Leicester had lost a game (2-5 to Arsenal) and people thought the bubble had burst. At St Mary’s they went 2-0 down (again) and fought back to claim a point (again) with Vardy scoring two (again). Leicester sending a message that they never give up!

11. Leicester 1 Crystal Palace 0. Vardy scored again (for the seventh game running) but this is more significant for it being  Leicester’s first clean sheet in their tenth game. Ranieri rewarded his players with pizzas!

12. Manchester United 0 Manchester City 0. A terrible game but I’ve mentioned it as it showed that the Manchester clubs – who had won four of the last five titles – were not the force they were and the title race was wide open…

13.  Chelsea 1 Liverpool 3. …Especially as Chelsea were not recovering. Jurgen Klopp’s first great result as Liverpool manager kept Chelsea marooned in the bottom half and piled the pressure on Mourinho.

14. Newcastle 0 Leicester 3. An easy win over a pathetic Newcastle with Vardy scoring for the tenth successive match equaling the Premier League record. I’ve mentioned this game as it was the day Leicester went top for the first time (November 21). Still they wouldn’t last long surely…

15. Stoke 2 Manchester City 0. And they didn’t. Held by Manchester United despite Vardy setting a Premier League record by scoring for the eleventh game in a row they lost top spot to the other half of Manchester. But the next week a terrible performance by City gave Stoke an easy win and if Leicester won that afternoon they would return to the top..

16. Swansea 0 Leicester 3. Which they did. Despite Vardy failing to score a hat trick by the brilliant Mahrez sent Leicester back to the top and cost Swansea manager Garry Monk his job. Still they had not beaten a big team said their critics…

17. Bournemouth 2 Manchester United 1. Although United were near the top of the table their performances had been poor and they had just been knocked out of the Champions League. An embarrassing defeat to Premier League new boys Bournemouth piled on the pressure on Louis van Gaal and United’s title ambitions faded away.

18. Leicester 2 Chelsea 1. A significant game as Leicester gained their first win of the season against one of the “big five”. Vardy and Mahrez scored in a game which is also significant for the fact Chelsea finally sacked Mourinho after this defeat. They only lost two more League games after this but it was far too late for them.

19. Everton 2 Leicester 3. Notable for the fact that this clinched Leicester top spot in the table on Christmas Day. But everyone thought they would come down with the decorations….

20. Southampton 4 Arsenal 0…Especially when Leicester lost at Liverpool on Boxing Day. If Arsenal won at Southampton they would go top. But they crumpled to a humiliating defeat that caused more questions about their ability to sustain a title bid. They would end 2015 top when Leicester and Manchester City drew 0-0 but still with lots of questions to answer.

21. Manchester United 0 Chelsea 0. The Premier League’s fallen giants showing how far they had fallen. It was clear after this game that the duo who had won all but two of the titles since 2005 were not going to win it this season and that the door was wide open. Even for little old Leicester…

Part two coming up….

Time for fair play for cricket’s minnows

In 1974 the Football World Cup in West Germany had 16 teams. Three of them were minnows who were out of their depth. Zaire scored no goals in three games and lost 14, including a 9-0 defeat by Yugoslavia. Their performance was used to ridicule black African football for years to come (they were the first black African team to play at the Football World Cup). Haiti broke Italy’s sequence of 13 internationals without conceding a goal but still lost their three games scoring 2 goals and conceding 14, including a 7-0 defeat by Poland. While although Australia only conceded five goals and gained a point they failed to score.

While those teams were out of their depth traditional football powers like England, Spain, France, the Soviet Union and Uruguay did not qualify. A lot of people thought it was ridiculous that the three minnows were there when the big countries mentioned above were not. UK football journalist Brian Glanville called Zaire “an African team with little right to be there at all”. People called for Africa, Asia and North America to lose their guaranteed places in the Football World Cup.

To FIFA’s credit (this is 1974 remember!) they did not remove the Afro-Asians guaranteed World Cup places. FIFA were well aware if football was to go global it had to allow African and Asian teams access to the World Cup. And only sixteen years later a black African country Cameroon got to the quarter finals of the World Cup and but for two Gary Lineker penalties would have got to the Semi Finals and embarrassed England. It is fair to say that if FIFA had over reacted to the mismatches of 1974 football might have remained a European/South American sport and Major League Soccer in the US would not exist nor would the African players who grace the elite male Leagues of Europe (including of course Riyad Mahrez star of Leicester’s amazing season and surely a dead cert to be England’s Footballer of the Year).

Now to another sport. In 2007 the Cricket World Cup in the Caribbean had 16 teams. And again some were out of their depth. Bermuda lost games by 257 and 243 runs, while Holland lost games by 229 and 221 runs. But unlike the 1974 Football World Cup there were upsets. On one day – March 17 – there were two sensational upsets when Bangladesh and Ireland defeated and eliminated India and Pakistan respectively. And were those triumphs celebrated? No. Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack 2008 (page 1015) said that “the untimely departure of the two subcontinental giants robbed the tournament of several luminaries”. Well so what? Sport is all about giant killings – which is why Leicester are getting so much support. No one has a divine right to win. Incredibly the minnows in cricket got criticised both for being hammered and for causing upsets. Matthew Engel in Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack  2007 (page 18) called the expansion of cricket an “outright menace”. That remark was cricket’s equivalent of the Glanville remark mentioned above and should have got the UK press banned from any sports event held outside of the UK. How in the hell can it be a menace to have more countries playing a sport?

But unfortunately the International Cricket Council (ICC) unlike FIFA back in 1974 over reacted. The next two Cricket World Cups (2011 and 2015) were cut to fourteen teams and the 2019 one will be cut to ten. Incredible. Most other sports are expanding, cricket is going the other way. Cricket has a dreadful image problem. It’s reputation is that it is snobbish and elitist and out of touch with the real world – a sort of sporting equivalent of the UK Conservative Party. Cutting the number of teams in the World Cup does nothing to de toxify the sport. If anything it makes the reputation appear true.

Nor does the Twenty Twenty World Cup – currently being played in India – treat the minnows any better. In theory there are sixteen teams but in practice there are only ten. The big eight get a bye and the other eight teams have to fight for two places in an event that is a qualifying round in everything but name. But six of those eight had to qualify to get to India. In theory they qualify for the World Cup but in practice they qualified for another qualifying round while the big countries were actually playing warm up games during the Qualifying Round – showing arrogant contempt for the minnows.

The World Twenty Twenty really should be split into four groups of four with the top two in each group going into either knockout quarter finals or two further groups of four either way would produce the semi finalists. The ICC won’t do this for fear of either producing mismatches or having big teams knocked out. Yet mismatches are a short term price to pay for the longer term goal of expanding the sport while giant killing is part of sport. England, Italy and Spain all exited the 2014 men’s football World Cup early and the event did not suffer. No team or player should be bigger than the sport.

Cricket likes to think of itself as a model of fair play. Well it is time for the sport to practice what it preaches. It is time for fair play for cricket’s minnows. For contracting the World Cup is anything but fair.

Leicester’s success recalls another East Midlands miracle

The Leicester City bandwagon shows no sign of crashing. Quite the opposite in fact. The surprise Premier League leaders looked seriously impressive in beating Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Saturday to go five (repeat five) points clear at the top of the Premier League table. For the first time the bookmakers have Claudio Ranieri’s team as title favourites (at odds of 7-4). If results go their way on Sunday when the top four play each other Leicester could go seven points clear (if they win at Arsenal and the Manchester City v Tottenham game is a draw). We would really have to take them seriously as title contenders.

If Leicester do go on to win the title it would be the biggest shock in English football since Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest won Division One (what the top division was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992) in 1977-78. It is fascinating to compare the two as there are similarities between the two teams – and differences.

The key similarity between Leicester and Forest is that both teams were lucky to be in the top division at all. First Leicester. On March 21st 2015 they lost 4-3 at Tottenham. It left Leicester bottom of the table after 29 games with just 19 points and four wins all season. They were seven points short of safety and were doomed to relegation unless something remarkable happened. Which it did. Leicester won seven out of their last nine games and drew another. Only champions Chelsea beat them. They finished on 41 points six points clear of the bottom three. They won more points (22) in their last nine games than they did in the first twenty nine (19).

If that was remarkable Forest’s story was even more astonishing. On May 7th 1977 they played their last Division Two game of the season, beating Millwall 1-0 – the goal was an own goal another piece of luck. They were in third place in the table (the top three went up without play offs in those days). But Forest were not promoted yet. Nearest rivals Bolton were two points behind with two games to play (it was two points for a win at the time). Three points from those two games and Bolton would go up instead of Forest. But on May 14th 1977 Bolton lost 0-1 at home to Wolves and Forest were promoted while they were in Spain (not the first time this happened to Clough. In 1972 his Derby team needed Arsenal and Leeds not to win in order to win the Division One title. Incredibly neither did and Derby were champions. They clinched the title when they were in Spain just as Forest were in Spain when they clinched promotion. Clough was indisputably a great manager. But he was also lucky).

Understandably neither Leicester or Forest were given much of a chance of doing much. Especially as in the case of Leicester they changed their manager in the summer of 2015 when after a racism scandal in Thailand which saw his son sacked manager Nigel Pearson was also sacked. He was replaced by Ranieri best known for being the first Chelsea manager of the Roman Abramovich era.

But Leicester and Forest both got off to fliers. And here again two similarities. Both Forest and Leicester got off to fliers but were written off. A joke about Leicester were they were like the elephant at the top of a tree. No one knew how they got there but we know they’ll fall down eventually.  Both Forest and Leicester’s first defeats were against Arsenal and heavy (0-3 for Forest and 2-5 for Leicester) and when those defeats happened it was thought Forest and Leicester would collapse. Neither did. On October 4th 1977 Forest went to the top of the table and were never headed again. But it was not until they beat Manchester United 4-0 at Old Trafford on December 17th that they became title favourites. Leicester first hit the top of the table on November 21st 2015. Since then they have been never lower than second or more than two points behind the leaders. And (as I mentioned earlier) they became title favourites with a win in Manchester just like Forest.

Whether Leicester emulate Forest remains to be seen. But there are similarities between the two teams namely the managerial skills of Ranieri and Clough and unknown players rising to unexpected heights. For Leicester the attacking success of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy plus the less heralded contributions of Danny Drinkwater, Robert Huth and Kasper Schmeichel. For Forest the emergence of players like Tony Woodcock and John Robertson as First Division quality players.

Also both were shrewd in the transfer market. Mahrez and Vardy were bought for cheap fees. Forest signed Kenny Burns and Larry Lloyd for cheap fees because they were considered to be a trouble maker and past his best respectively. Only Clough thought differently and was rewarded.

But if Leicester win the League it will be a far better achievement. First apart from Liverpool the big clubs were not as good as they are now. Arsenal, Chelsea and both Manchester clubs weren’t as highly placed and Tottenham were in Division Two. Secondly Forest were not a poor club. For all Clough’s managerial skills would they have won the League had they not signed Peter Shilton the best keeper in England and a player arguably worth ten points a season for £250000? That was a big fee at the time – the UK transfer record was then £440,000 which Liverpool paid Celtic for Kenny Dalglish. And less than a year after winning the title in February 1979 they became the first British club to pay a million pounds for a player when they signed Trevor Francis. Leicester will not be breaking the British transfer record anytime soon. While Forest’s success was remarkable it was due to a great manager in Clough. Most teams that win the title for the first time in ages or ever win because of a great manager (Clough at Derby and Forest, Alf Ramsey at Ipswich  and Don Revie at Leeds to name but three) or a rich benefactor (Blackburn, Chelsea and Manchester City). Leicester have neither. Ranieri has never won a League title in a long career. Leicester’s Thai owners have not thrown money around. The team that beat City cost £22 million which by current standards is peanuts. Liverpool flop Christian Benteke cost £32 million on his own. If Leicester win the title there is a case for saying it would be the best achievement in UK football history.

Recalling another silly season

To say the 2015-16 Premier League season has been weird is an understatement. Leicester City are top, defending champions Chelsea – who today sacked Jose Mouriniho – are 16th out of 20. It is as if the table has been turned upside down. Manchester United are only consistent in playing out 0-0 draws, Liverpool are thoroughly unpredictable, Tottenham are hard to beat but draw too many games and even Arsenal and Manchester City – the best of the big teams – have had their bad results. While as well as Leicester the likes of Watford, West Ham, Stoke, Crystal Palace and even Premier League first timers Bournemouth have been wrecking havoc. It is all exciting and totally unpredictable and no one knows how it will end. Critics have complained about the lack of quality – using the Premier League’s poor European performances as an argument – but no one can deny the excitement. You could call 2015-16 the “silly season”.

The English football season that most resembles 2015-16 is 1974-75 – another silly season which was totally unpredictable. I just thought I would compare that season with this to see both the similarities and explain how despite the silliness 1974-75 ended predictably – as this season could well do.

One statistic will show how crazy the 1974-75 season was. By the second Saturday of December 1974 six different teams had topped the Division One* table – Carlisle**, Ipswich, Liverpool, Manchester City, Stoke and Everton. Quite remarkably none of those six teams would go on and win the title. Big clubs were struggling. On the 10th of October 1974 – the day of the October 1974 UK General Election – Arsenal were bottom of Division One, Tottenham were second bottom and Chelsea were third bottom*** (Manchester United were not even in Division One having been relegated to Division Two**** the previous April). Small teams were doing well – not just Stoke but Burnley and promoted Middlesbrough challenged for the title for a large part of the season. At the end of 1974 only five points separated the top thirteen teams. Another similarly was that English clubs did badly in Europe (only one – Leeds United – got to the last eight in Europe).

And yet another similarly between 1974-75 and the current season was the implosion of the defending champions. In 1973-74 Leeds United had easily won the League title but in the summer of 1974 manager Don Revie had left to become the England manager. Inexplicably Leeds replaced him with Brian Clough. Inexplicably because in the summer of 1973 Clough had criticised Leeds poor disciplinary record saying that the club should have been relegated as a punishment. So no wonder he was not exactly welcomed with open arms by the Leeds players. The only difference between Clough in 1974 and Mouriniho today was the implosion came quicker. A lot quicker. After 44 days in charge with one League win and the reigning champions 19th out of 22 Clough was sacked. The affair caused a sensation then and still does. A book was written about Clough’s 44 day reign – called the “Dammed United” – which was turned into a film with the same title. It might interest Chelsea fans that Leeds stabilised under new manager Jimmy Armfield but could only finish ninth. They did get to the Final of the European Cup (now the Champions League) but lost it 2-0 to Bayern Munich. An omen for today’s Chelsea?

So how did the 1974-75 season end? Predictably. After all the mayhem the title was won by Derby County one of the best sides of the time (they were third the previous season and had won the title in 1972). Runners up were Liverpool – as they had been in 1974 – who had won the League in 1973.  Two of the three previous title winners in the top two. Hardly a surprise. Everton should have won the title – by March 22 1975 they were three points clear with seven games left. But they won only two of them to blow it. Stoke, Burnley and Middlesbrough – the three small clubs involved in the race – finished fifth, tenth and seventh respectively – a warning for the likes of Leicester, Palace and West Ham today.

So does what happened in 1974-75 give us a clue about the rest of this season? I’d say yes. Based on that season I’d say Chelsea’s new manager will stabilise them but they will rise only to mid table (though they might do well in the Champions League). Leicester won’t win the League but should be top six while Palace Watford and West Ham could be top ten.

And remember I said that the top two of 1974-75 were the two teams that finished immediately below the Champions the previous season. Applied to this season and that means the top two will be Arsenal and Manchester City. Would that really surprise anyone? I suspect after all the mayhem the season will end with either City’s third title in five years or Arsene Wenger’s first title in 12 years. And let’s face it apart from Chelsea those two were the pre season favourites.

I suspect after all the hype, the twists and turns and the shock results the silly season of 2015-16 will come up with a sensible ending. Just like its counterpart in 1974-75 in fact…

*Division One was what the top tier of English football was called before the formation of the Premier League in 1992.

**I mentioned Carlisle’s 1974-75 team – and cricket playing Chris Balderstone – in previous post “A feat you will never see again”.

***Only Chelsea were relegated at the end of the season. Arsenal and especially Tottenham struggled throughout finishing 16th and 19th respectively. In fact if Tottenham had lost their last game of the season they would have been relegated.

****Division Two is the pre 1992 name for what is now the Championship. For the record United easily won Division Two in 1974-75 returning to the top division remaining there ever since.