Manchester United-Leicester City Preview
They are the fairy-tale story of the Premier League, these Foxes.
They have flourished with a self-made striker who refuses to be denied during a historic goal-scoring run and a cunning playmaker who cannot be contained. It is the alchemy of offence created by the "Tinkerman" and a swashbuckling style that defies convention yet defines their resiliency.
The 364-day odyssey in which Leicester City climbed from the foot of the top-flight table to the apex reaches its crescendo Saturday at King Power Stadium, where Jamie Vardy and the Foxes host Manchester United in a clash of the league's top two sides.
Yet this moment very nearly never materialised for the Foxes following their return to the Premier League last season. A 3-2 defeat on match day 13 to Queens Park Rangers on Nov. 29 dropped them to last place, a spot they occupied for nearly five months. But then-coach Nigel Pearson oversaw Leicester's escape from the drop, sprinting to the tape with 22 points in their final nine matches to finish 14th.
Pearson, though, was sacked in June after a falling out with ownership due to an incident involving his son and two other players during a post-season tour of Thailand, leading to the arrival of Claudio Ranieri. The Italian was familiar with the Premier League having managed Chelsea last decade but also had a reputation of constantly changing lineups and formations at all his coaching stops, hence his "Tinkerman" moniker.
Yet all his moves - and perhaps some Ranieri did not make - plus the scintillating form of both Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have all contributed to Leicester City (8-4-1) looking down at the rest of the table this weekend. The Foxes are the first team aside from United, Manchester City, Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to lead the Premier League this late in the season since Newcastle topped the table Jan. 12, 2002.
"It's a big match, it's the big match of the Premier League this week. We are top of the league and we deserve this in this moment," Ranieri said Thursday. "To stay at the top of the league is experience for us because everybody is thinking Leicester are top of the league. ... I want to see how my players show for one week at the top of the league."
And many more - save Manchester United - want to see Vardy claim the Premier League's longest goal-scoring streak solely for himself as he tries to find the back of the net for the 11th consecutive league match.
At one point playing for non-league club Fleetwood Town, a side he helped lift into the Football League, the 28-year-old forward is the talk of England after equaling Ruud van Nistelrooy's mark with a strike in first-half injury time of Leicester's 3-0 romp at Newcastle United last Saturday. The Dutchman achieved the same with Manchester United spanning the 2002-03 and 2003-04 seasons.
"It's always difficult, but during the week in training you've just got to look at ways that can get me into my best positions and through on goal, especially if I'm up front," said Vardy, who has scored all of his league-high 13 goals from inside the penalty area, to Foxes Player HD. "We concentrate on what their defenders are like. ... We just have to put it in practice on a Saturday.
"As you can see with the weeks that we've been having and the goals, it's obviously working for us."
Vardy's relentless pressing and willingness to take on defenders has drawn comparisons to a player United (8-3-2) know quite well - their captain and Vardy's national teammate, Wayne Rooney. But if the Devils' defence, which has shipped a league-low nine goals, focuses too much on Vardy, then it could be Mahrez who pulls them apart.
The Algeria international has seven goals and six assists, picking up one on Leonardo Ulloa's goal last Saturday, to help power the Foxes to a league-best 28 goals. While Leicester have also yielded 20 goals, they lead the Premiership with 10 points claimed from matches during which they trailed.
While Leicester are taking in the sights and deserved plaudits from their lofty perch, a marquee match is nothing new to 13-time Premier League winners United. Yet the red side of Manchester may be green with envy at Leicester's scoring rate given United have netted only 19 in league play and are coming off a scoreless home draw in Champions League play versus manager Louis van Gaal's old club PSV Eindhoven.
The result left Rooney questioning the team's lack of drive in the final third, and United are still without a spot in the knockout round ahead of their last group match versus Wolfsburg.
''We are not ruthless enough - we have to score more goals as a team,'' Rooney said. ''(It's) a learning curve but we cannot go on saying that. We have to change these (draws) into victories.''
United have posted victories in their last two league matches and are unbeaten in nine on the bounce (4-5-0) across all competitions with only two goals conceded in that run. While Wednesday's result may stick in the craw, there's no time to lament before this tea-time match.
"With the chances we created against PSV, we felt we should have won the game," Ashley Young told MUTV. "Leicester are the leaders, so this is a top of the table clash. We'll be looking to keep up the good form we've shown in the league over the last few weeks and hopefully get the three points."
United won the most recent match 3-1, their 10th in the last 11 versus the Foxes. But the home team won each match last season, and the narrative of the Foxes' victory seems fitting in retrospect: Leicester overturned a 3-1 deficit with four unanswered goals in the final 28 minutes of their 5-3 win. Vardy assisted on two of the goals before netting the match-winner in the 79th minute.