Champions Leicester and Mourinho´s new United set for first big test
It has been almost three months since Leicester City completed arguably the greatest sporting achievement when they lifted the Premier League title.
Claudio Ranieri and his motley crew of bargain buys and free transfers stunned the world by upsetting the old guard and the financial powerhouses to win the top-flight crown for the first time.
If the wily Ranieri was the master technician, then N’Golo Kante was the on-field marshal, Jamie Vardy the crucial source of goals, Robert Huth and Wes Morgan an impenetrable force in defence, and Riyad Mahrez the ace in the pack, capable of producing the extraordinary.
Even as the pre-season odds of 5,000-1 began to plummet and Ranieri’s men continued to defy logic, there remained a sense that it was a matter of time before it unravelled, before ‘little’ Leicester awoke from their dream.
That it did not is credit to the character in the team, the never-say-die attitude and the underestimated quality that resonated through the squad.
— The FA (@FA) August 2, 2016
But the Premier League’s usual dominant forces, eager to set the record straight, have reacted decisively in a bid to ensure Leicester’s miraculous season remains a one-off.
Deposed champions Chelsea brought in Antonio Conte as the full-time successor to Jose Mourinho and Leicester got a first-hand look at their financial muscle when Kante decided that a lucrative move to Stamford Bridge was more enticing than representing the Foxes in the Champions League.
Manchester City were also well off the pace last season, but the introduction of Pep Guardiola to the Etihad Stadium showed that Sheikh Mansour is still willing to pull out all the stops to make City a force to be reckoned with on the global stage.
Leicester’s first real test since becoming champions comes at Wembley on Sunday against a Manchester United side remoulded and rejuvenated by the arrival of Mourinho to replace the unpopular Louis van Gaal.
The marriage of United and Mourinho has seemingly fallen into place at the perfect time.
United may have won the FA Cup last season, but in truth the post-Alex Ferguson era has been a damp squib and Van Gaal’s perceived bland style left the club stagnant.
Mourinho saw his reputation as one the game’s best coaches dented by Chelsea’s title defence capitulation and talk of squad disharmony in the ranks.
But beware the wounded animal. Mourinho has already set about putting his stamp on United’s squad, the arrival of trusted lieutenant Zlatan Ibrahimovic – the two having combined so successfully at Inter – may seem somewhat of a risk at 34, but could end up being a shrewd piece of business with the Sweden great desperate to prove his evergreen quality in a country that has previously doubted his talent.
Eric Bailly represents a glimpse into the future, but he fits the Mourinho type of a strong, pacy, no-nonsense centre-back, while Henrikh Mkhitaryan will add guile and ingenuity to an attack that was lifeless at times under Van Gaal.
The jewel in the crown, though, is set to come from the expected return of Paul Pogba for a world-record fee.
That United still boast that kind of clout, while Leicester have had the likes of Kante prised from their grasp, underlines the gulf that still exists in status, even though the Foxes carry the label of champions.
Sunday’s Wembley showdown offers a chance for United to redress a balance thrown so wildly out of kilter last season, but Leicester have never seemed concerned about having to overcome the odds.