Lots of people shared a laugh when Claudio Ranieri was appointed to Leicester. Perhaps it was because he has a reputation as a bottler, a charlatan who through some dark art managed to convince his previous clubs he is a football manager. Or perhaps it was because he looks and sounds eerily like Mrs Doubtfire and does outrageous things like offer his players pizza for a clean sheet (watch this for proof of both). Or perhaps it was because they remembered his time with Chelsea, during which he won only 1 out of 14 games against the Gunners.
How emphatically he has proved those naysayers wrong. His last season at Chelsea in 2004 was the year of Arsenal’s invincibles – now his Leicester sit as the only unbeaten team in the league in 2015. This weekend is pivotal. Lose, and it will be met with a collective shrug and tut – we knew it wouldn’t last. But if they win, you’d be a real churl to deny they are the most likeable and exciting team in the league.
They provide goals, goals and more goals. Including cup games, they’ve scored 19 in 8 so far this term, registering in every match. They also have no clean sheets (and no pizza). Goals for both sides in every game - what incredible value for money their fans enjoy. Aside from Bournemouth, they are also the only other team to score 4 goals in a Premier League game this season.
If that wasn’t enough, they love a good comeback. In fact, they’ve come back from 2-0 down in their last two games to achieve a win and a draw, the win against Villa providing not just three points but also this hilariously unprofessional post-match interview with down-in-the-dumps Tim Sherwood. Look at his face; listen to his voice – this is what Leicester will do to you.
But who in particular will do it to you? Of course, it is Ranieri’s pair of fantasy football wizards, a couple of players who appear refreshingly jubilant to be footballers. Everything from their simple on-pitch body language to the nuances of their backstories is stirring. They are of course the scorers of Leicester’s comeback goals against Stoke last weekend, Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.
Vardy looks a b****rd, a thuggish pitbull of a player who’ll snap your heels even after the final whistle’s blown, but his career trajectory makes it impossible to dislike him. He made a total of 189 appearances for Stocksbridge Park Steels, Halifax Town and Fleetwood Town before moving to Leicester in 2012. He is almost an anti-Premier league player, completely unblemished by bells and whistles and so practiced in getting the basics right that he needs nothing else. The kind of footballer who almost conjures memories of how you weren’t half bad as an amateur 11-a-sider and think, for a split second, perhaps it’s not too late…
If Vardy’s zero-to-hero tale is heartwarming, Mahrez’s will make you weak at the knees. As an amateur youngster in Paris, he was told he couldn’t be a footballer because he was too skinny. His father died aged 15, and in a recent interview with the Guardian he admitted “[His death] maybe was the kickstart. I don’t know if I started to be more serious but after the death of my dad things started to go for me. Maybe in my head I wanted it more.” He has now competed in the world cup for the country of his father’s birth, Algeria, and looks an absolute firework in the Premier League.
They are the zealots of this irresistibly likeable team, a bunch of chancers led by Mrs Doubtfire who will doubtlessly let goals in but score a few more, a team motivated by fast food who nobody saw coming. They have invigorated the league to the point at which how long it lasts doesn’t really matter, just as long as we savour every moment that it does. If they beat Arsenal on Saturday, the pizza’s on me.