Targeting a dream finish

Football : Leicester City's terrific run in the English Premier League has raised hopes of a title triumph this time

Targeting a dream finish

Three years ago, a news conference was held at the University of Leicester to confirm that the remains discovered beneath a city parking lot in 2012 were those of King Richard III, one of the most vilified monarchs in history.

The finding, which involved a glorious combination of science and serendipity, brought global attention to this city in England's East Midlands, and when Richard's remains were reburied inside the local Anglican Church last year, a steady stream of tourists followed, too.

Hundreds of thousands of visitors have come to the cathedral and the nearby exhibition since then, which has a glass-floor viewing area of the dig site where the skeleton was unearthed. Books have been written with Leicester featured prominently. Television specials and documentaries have been produced as well. As a guide at the cathedral said, it is as if "suddenly the whole world knows who we are."

He laughed, then added, "Maybe soon we might be known for something even bigger."
The guide was, of course, exaggerating — though perhaps not by as much as one might initially imagine.

For the past few months, the fortunes of the local soccer team, Leicester City, have been a novelty, an oddity, a curiosity. Unheralded and relatively underfunded, the Foxes, as they are known, have somehow spent most of this season in first place in the Premier League ahead of teams like Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester United and Manchester City.

Leicester City's hot start was supposed to fade in September or October. Or maybe November. Or December. But now that the club is still atop the table, still leading some of the biggest lights in the game through January and on into February, the impossible is beginning to seem more real.

One simple, and tantalising, question is on the lips -- and radios and televisions -- of everyone here: Could Leicester City, which was essentially bankrupt as recently as 2002 and playing in the third tier of English soccer as recently as 2009, actually finish first in the world's most famous soccer league?

"I've done open-top bus tours around the city centre after we won trophies," Matt Elliott, a defender who captained the Foxes to the 2000 League Cup title, said in an interview Tuesday before Leicester beat Liverpool 2-0. "And if they were to see it through and win the league? I think they might do an open-top bus tour around the whole county. Maybe even farther."

History can be pegged either for or against Leicester City's chances. For example, the team atop the league at the end of January has gone on to win the title in each of the last 11 seasons (encouraging) while the Foxes have been in existence for 132 years and never won the top crown (less so).

There are, though, a few factors in Leicester City's favour. First, the Foxes have fewer games on their schedule than their closest competitors. While Manchester City (second) and Arsenal (fourth) have to juggle Premier League games with domestic cup and Champions League matchups, Leicester City has been eliminated from the League and FA Cups and, with their last-gasp dash to avoid relegation in the Premier League last year, did not qualify for European competition.

There is also the emotional component. Manchester City are in flux after it revealed this week that their manager, Manuel Pellegrini, would be replaced at the end of the season by Pep Guardiola. And Arsenal, a mainstay in the top four positions of the Premier League for nearly two decades, have struggled in recent years to finish the job and win (their last title came in 2004).

Then, naturally, there is the way that Leicester City plays. Manager Claudio Ranieri has somehow coaxed career seasons out of a group that is not altogether different from the one that barely escaped relegation with a 14th-place finish a year ago, led by striker Jamie Vardy -- who was playing in the fifth division in 2011.

Vardy has scored 18 goals this season, including 13 in a sublime stretch in which he set a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive games. Behind his production as well as the slick work of Riyad Mahrez, Leicester City has relied on an intense counterattacking style which has led to wins over Everton and Chelsea, among others, as well as draws with Manchester City and Manchester United. Through 24 league games, the Foxes have lost only twice.

"At this point, every game is, arguably, the biggest game in the history of the club," said Arlo White, who grew up in Leicester and is now the lead commentator on the Premier League for NBC. "If they win it, beating who they'll have beaten, it will be the greatest story in Premier League history."

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