Walking out of White Hart Lane last night after seeing Tottenham all but surrender their title challenge, there was still an element of disbelief that Leicester City are now effectively Premier League champions. For Spurs fans, there was disappointment at the result and indeed its consequence, with their wait for a maiden Premier League title set to prolong. Perhaps the bottles were not quite being popped 100 miles north, but they were definitely being chilled for this weekend.
Leicester can secure their crown with a win over Manchester United, closing a season that has left football fans throughout not only England, but the world, enchanted by the rise of a club who barely managed to avoid relegation last year. But this Leicester was a different proposition to that of 2014/15. Under Claudio Ranieri, a style of play was developed that saw the Foxes become resigned to having minimal possession during games, being outplayed in the majority, but focus on counter-attacking, blinding-quick, clinical offensive play.
Their achievement could be counted as all the more notable because of their lack of recognisable faces in their squad: Players that have tried and failed to make waves at big clubs (Schmeichel, Huth, Simpson, Drinkwater); players who carved out decent careers at mid-table and Championship clubs (Albrighton, Ulloa, Morgan); virtually unknown players from Ligue 1 (Mahrez, Kante); and an enigmatic striker reared in the lower leagues (Vardy). But it has been this blend, along with the tactical knowledge of an experienced old fox – excuse the pun – has made Leicester a supreme force this year.
If there is one player that epitomises how huge an accomplishment this season has been for Leicester, it is the majestic Riyad Mahrez. In a league full of big-named, world class talent – Hazard, Sanchez, Fabregas, Costa, Rooney, Aguero, Silva – it has been the before-unknown Algerian that has stolen the show.
A transfer amounting to just £400,000 from Le Havre, Mahrez is, in many ways, a complete contrast to many of the big ‘stars’ to have come to the Premier League, and flopped. It is highly unlikely that anyone took notice when Mahrez’s name appeared on Sky Sports News having joined the Foxes, but his impact on the pitch has earned countless column inches on how dazzling and prolific he has been.
The impetus that he brings to Leicester’s attacking spurts has seen him involved in 28 goals directly this season – 17 of which he has scored from midfield – from 52 chances created. In 35 games, 52 chances created is not a huge number. Compare this to that of Mesut Ozil, who has created 136 in a similar amount of games, and it displays how clinical both Mahrez and Leicester have remained. There are no signs of missing chance after chance, and this has certainly been a crucial component of their success to date.
The plaudits he has earned among spectators and press were echoed by his peers, when he was voted the worthy winner of PFA Player of the Year, beating Ozil, Harry Kane, Dimitri Payet and his team-mates Kante and Vardy to the award. It was the authenticity of the man when collecting his award, acknowledging how huge a feat not only his personal award but the team’s achievements this season that has impressed even further, indisputably earning the popular winger even more admirers.
When, as expected, Leicester pick up the Premier League trophy at the end of the season, Ranieri, Vardy, Kante and Co will secure their names in Leicester City and Premier League folklore. But when the history books are being written, it will be the brilliance of Mahrez noted as the catalyst of their success.