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Hoonhout: Leicester City still has much to prove

| Wednesday, September 14, 2016

This week marks the beginning of the European soccer merry-go-round known as the Champions League, in which the top teams in Europe battle for supremacy.

The process is typically one of glitz and glam, with giants like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich fielding teams of international stars to play in front of packed stadiums. The typical best teams from England — such as Chelsea and Manchester United — are also usually associated with the competition, but not this year. Both failed to qualify and, in their place, stands perhaps what is the greatest Cinderella story in all of sports: Leicester City.

Last season, to the shock of the soccer world, the Foxes — who had only been promoted back to the Premier League in 2014  after a 10-year absence and barely escaped relegation the subsequent year — won the Premier League title at 5,000-1 odds. 5,000-1. In a sport where the well-known teams are always the ones competing for the title and the little ones are fighting for the scraps, the Foxes shattered the status quo. Led by manager Claudio Ranieri, an Italian who had coached 14 different teams but had never won a top-level title, and a squad of no-names and journeymen, Leicester began last year as relegation contenders once again. But game after game, their simple, direct style worked wonders, and stars emerged. N’Golo Kante was perhaps the signing of the EPL season, as the diminutive box-to-box midfielder seemed to be everywhere at once, making tackles, snagging interceptions and starting counterattacks for Riyad Mahrez — a silky-smooth Algerian winger who had been signed from the French second division — and striker Jamie Vardy — who hadn’t even been playing professionally just five years earlier.

Yet, somehow, some way, the stars aligned, and Leicester made history. As the big clubs stumbled, they rose to the top and defied the most rational of expectations.

But now what? After achieving the impossible, Leicester stares at a long and daunting challenge. Not only do they have to defend their title against those same giants, who spent a combined 541.5 million pounds to reinforce their squads, but they also have to compete on the biggest stage in club soccer.

With the influx of money from winning the league and qualifying for Europe, the Foxes certainly are not going down quietly. They spent over 70 million pounds this summer, and broke their transfer record three times. The best of the bunch is Algerian striker Islam Slimani, who scored 48 goals for Sporting Lisbon in 61 starts. Although Leicester had to pay 30 million for his services, he should provide a major boost, and link up well with Vardy and his fellow Algerian, Mahrez. The team also signed Nigerian forward Ahmed Musa for 19.5 million and French midfielder Nempalys Mendy, who they hope can replace the departed Kante, for 15.5 million. These reinforcements should provide a big impact, and help strengthen the squad as they prepare for their toughest test yet.

The Premier League just ended its fourth week, and so far, Leicester City has had a tough going. The team sits in 16th place, having lost twice already — including a 4-1 dismantling by Liverpool this past Saturday. But none of the new signings have yet to play major roles, and the season is a long one. In many ways, Leicester’s Champions League campaign could be used to jump start its domestic one. It has perhaps the weakest group in the competition, with FC Porto looking like its only real hurdle. If all goes according to plan, the Foxes should advance and can use the morale and chemistry-boosting opportunities that European football provides to help them in their title defense. However, there is also a downside to playing in an extra competition: Less rest and more opportunities for injuries are always a threat, and Ranieri must do a good job of balancing both campaigns to maximize results. Last season’s luck has never been seen before, and so it will be fascinating to see if this Cinderella story is the real deal or just a farce. Playing under the lights against some of Europe’s oldest and most successful clubs in history may prove the perfect test.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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About Tobias Hoonhout

Toby served as Managing Editor in the 2018-2019 term.

Contact Tobias