Leicester: the football fairytale that keeps on giving
By Ian Chadband
LONDON (Reuters) - At a stunned Etihad Stadium, Leicester City fans crooned "and now you're gonna believe us we're gonna win the league", while across England a delighted footballing community began to sense they may just be right.
Because after Leicester's comprehensive 3-1 win at Manchester City on Saturday, the delicious tale, one embraced by all neutrals, of the Midlands no-hopers, 5,000-1 outsiders at the start of the season, began to take on a different flavour.
No more talk of 'when' the Foxes' fairytale would begin crumbling into an unhappy ending. No more patronising of Claudio Ranieri's brilliant crew. No more talk of Premier League pipedreams.
Instead, as they pondered a five-point lead at the top of the table, it was time to heed the words of playmaker Riyad Mahrez who declared: "Now we're going to fight for the title".
Suddenly, with the assured excellence of Leicester's victory over a Manchester City side that cost more than 200 million pounds ($290 million) more to assemble than Ranieri's, a team with the best home record in England, it dawned once and for all that this wonderful story was no fluke.
A five-point lead? It may have seemed surreal, especially as the Foxes' fans pinched themselves about how, at the same stage of the season a year ago, they were leaving the Emirates Stadium after defeat by Arsenal, pondering how they were four points adrift at the bottom of the table and with no hope of escape.
Mahrez told BT Sport with a shrug on Saturday: "Even us, we didn't expect to win here 3-1 so we're just going to keep dreaming and see what can happen".
The Algerian's wizardry, a shining symbol of Leicester's cut-price challenge, tells you much about how this side, with its defensive doggedness, solid organisation and attacking pace and elan, are changing everyone's perceptions of what is now possible against the elite.
Mahrez made the first of Robert Huth's two goals, scored one himself quite brilliantly, and again reminded everyone, as he became the first Premier League player to reach double figures in goals (14) and assists (10), why he has been the bargain of the season.
He cost 400,000 pounds when he joined from Le Havre, less than Manchester City linchpin Yaya Toure earns in a fortnight, and must now be considered a Player of the Year candidate.
However, the great stories surrounding Leicester don't begin and end with him.
How about Jamie Vardy's leap from non-league obscurity to potential superstardom, the Hollywood scriptwriter who now routinely follows him around must fancy the whole plot is just too darned far-fetched, or the tireless N'Golo Kante's graduation from the French second division to midfield marvel?
Or just manager Ranieri's own graduation? The popular Italian has a smile and charm which has hitherto been far more impressive than his c.v., which does not include a single top-tier title, but what he is achieving now almost defies credibility.
Delightfully, he still refuses to get ahead of himself, deflecting all the championship talk with a joke or two.
Told that the bookmakers now make Leicester, who have collected 53 points from 25 matches, favourites ahead of Manchester City, he told the BBC: "I don't believe them. They said I was first to be sacked. But I hope they are right".
With the other contenders all about to be plunged into European or FA Cup action, Ranieri, who is looking forward to tackling Arsenal next, cannot deny Leicester's advantages.
"Those who play in the other competitions spend a lot of energy and travel a lot and that's not easy. That's a little advantage but we have to concentrate," the much-travelled Italian said.
Surely the pressure is about to crank up on them now, though. "Well, we don't really think about it," said German Huth, their cult figure of a defender.
"It's like any other day when you come in and think about the next game. And since we've reached the 40-point mark we haven't talked about anything but the next game. I think that's the way we'll keep doing it."
And why shouldn't the unreal come to pass? It was suggested to Ranieri that he had told his players in private that if they were ever going to win the league, this had to be the year.
"When did I say that?" he teased, a twinkle in the eye.