As Jamie Vardy’s breathtaking shot plunged into the Liverpool net on Tuesday, the thought dawned on Leicester City’s Premier League rivals that their title challenge might just be for real.
Leicester were top at Christmas, but a run of three games without a win prised them from the summit, seemingly fulfilling the prophecy that the Foxes would not stay the course over the season’s second half.
They have confounded expectations once again, however, with back-to-back victories over Stoke City and Liverpool taking them three points clear at the top of the table with 14 games remaining.
As the games pass and the wins continue to flow, Leicester find themselves closing in on what would be the most extraordinary English title triumph since Brian Clough inspired Nottingham Forest to glory in 1978.
Forest, who would go on to win two European Cups, had only been promoted the previous season, but while Leicester spent last season in the top flight, their 12-month rise from bottom to top has been just as dramatic.
“I think if Leicester win it this year it will be a greater achievement (than Forest’s),” said Robbie Savage, the former Leicester midfielder turned television pundit.
“We have got teams like (Manchester) United, who have spent £250 million ($363.7 million, 331.4 million euros) and might not finish in the top four. If Leicester win it, it would be unbelievable.”
Only five teams have been champions of England in the post-1992 Premier League era — Manchester United, Blackburn Rovers, Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester City — but Leicester’s emergence is bang on trend.
The 2015-16 season has seen old orthodoxies exposed, with smaller teams, emboldened by the proceeds from the Premier League’s huge television deals, punching above their weight.
Watford, Stoke City, West Ham United and Southampton have all bloodied the big boys’ noses, but it is Claudio Ranieri’s Leicester, scrappers supreme, who are leading the new wave.
And they have done it on a relative shoestring — Vardy signing from non-league Fleetwood Town for £1 million, Riyad Mahrez from Le Havre for £400,000 and N’Golo Kante, one of the season’s revelations, from Caen for £5.6 million.
– One-touch passing –
Summer in England has turned to autumn, autumn to winter and spring is now approaching, but Leicester’s approach remains unchanged: tight defence, minimal possession, spring-mounted counter-attacks.
Vardy’s superb first goal in the 2-0 win over Liverpool was largely his own work, but its construction captured Leicester’s modus operandi in microcosm, the England striker sprinting onto Mahrez’s pass from deep and lashing a shot over a startled Simon Mignolet.
A sequence later in the game revealed the breezy heights of Leicester’s confidence as Vardy, Mahrez, Kante, Danny Simpson, Danny Drinkwater and Shinji Okazaki combined in a dizzying one-touch passing move that left Liverpool’s defenders chasing shadows.
“This is team spirit at its highest. We won’t stop believing,” said midfielder Drinkwater.
“We’re staying on the ground, but if we carry on the way we are then why not have the belief (to win the league)? It would go down in history.”
Leicester have lost only twice to date this season — 5-2 at home to Arsenal in September, 1-0 at Liverpool in December — and have beaten champions Chelsea, Everton, Tottenham Hotspur, Stoke and Liverpool along the way.
Their next two fixtures would appear to represent the acid test of their title hopes, as they travel to second-place Manchester City on Saturday before visiting Arsenal the following weekend.
But whereas City and Arsenal must juggle their resources due to involvement in other competitions — three in City’s case, two in Arsenal’s — Leicester can afford to be completely single-minded.
Out of both domestic cups and unconcerned by European distractions, the league is their only focus.
Even if they miss out on the title, with a 10-point lead over fifth-place United, the consolation of Champions League qualification already looks highly plausible.
Leicester are making history. They may yet achieve sporting immortality.