Last weekend, Leicester City took on Manchester City at the formidable Etihad. Not too many teams come away from Manchester City’s home ground with a win, but Leicester City easily did. The scoreline was 1-3 with Manchester City pulling out its single goal when it no longer really mattered. At 0-3, Manchester City fans started leaving the Etihad in droves, prompting the Leicester fans to chant wonderingly, “Is there a fire drill?”
Leicester City’s story this season has been nothing less than sensational. Last season, it escaped relegation, just barely. Over the summer, it strengthened its team mostly with players no one had heard of. If they’d been heard of, they were not feared. It spent less for all of its summer additions than Manchester City spent on Raheem Sterling alone. Most of the new transfers into the Leicester squad are now playing regularly. In short, the team is the opposite of Arsenal which has been gradually molded over many years, one addition at a time, plucked strategically or by serendipity. But make no mistake about Arsenal’s admiration of the transfer business Leicester managed. Arsenal recently hired the scout who was so instrumental in locating all of this overlooked talent.
Leicester City also brought in a new manager over the summer, 64-year old Italian Claudio Ranieri, universally predicted by the footballing press in August to be the first manager sacked this year. Ranieri’s last stint in the Premier League had been at Chelsea, the last manager in charge before Jose Mourinho took the reins his first time through. In his Chelsea days, the English press had dismissively referred to him as “the Tinkerman” the manager who tweaked and rotated his way incessantly, ultimately out of a job. Ranieri had much managerial experience coming into Leicester, little of it successful.
The reason the press was so certain Ranieri would be sacked before any of his managerial peers at other clubs was that it was certain Leicester City would quickly sink to the bottom of the league.
Nothing could be further from the truth. Leicester started well and kept on going. Every small falter during the season produced new predictions: the good run was over. But Leicester has proved everyone wrong again and again and again. The reason Sky rescheduled this coming Sunday’s match only three weeks ahead of match was that they had underestimated Leicester in the original scheduling three weeks earlier, not recognizing that this Arsenal v. Leicester match could be a match for the top of the table. Also because they wanted two top-four matches on Sunday, pretty much back-to-back as Tottenham takes on Manchester City later in the day.
It’s an important match, but it’s not a top of the table match because Arsenal has faltered since the match was rescheduled. Leicester City are five points ahead. It’s important that Arsenal win, but even if we do, Leicester City will still lead the league by two points. And Tottenham may stay ahead of us if they succeed against Manchester City.
Arsenal did beat Leicester City at King Power Stadium in the first half of the season, 5-2, with Alexis Sanchez scoring a hat trick. Leicester City was scoring a lot at that time of the season, but defensively, they were letting in a lot of goals. They are two different teams now, with Arsenal struggling to get its mojo back and Leicester looking as solid as can be.
Leicester’s dominance this season (coupled with some serious falls from grace among the rich teams) has transformed the league and added the magic of unpredictability that has been lacking for the last few seasons.
When my husband and I selected the matches we’d like to see at the beginning of the season, we chose this Leicester City match because there was a decent chance it might occur in close proximity to the Round of 16 Champions League match, allowing us a single trip to watch two matches. (Alas, it was not close enough.) In a million years, I never would have expected it to be an important match involving the team at the top of the league, who we must beat to chip away at the point difference between us.
The Leicester City fans are planning a “fire drill” of their own to protest the actions of Sky in altering the match date. You can read about it here in Tim Stillman’s Arseblog piece, Enough is Enough. The fans will stay on the concourse until 5 minutes into the match, when they will take their seats. Many Arsenal fans plan to join in as well. This is a week of much fan activism, as thousands of Liverpool fans left their FA Cup match against Sunderland in the 77th minute to protest the raising of season ticket prices, and Borrusia Dortman’s fans protested by throwing hundreds of tennis balls onto the pitch for much the same reason.
I can’t agree with leaving the stadium in droves in Is-there-a-fire-drill style because your team is down; that is not something I would do to my Arsenal. They need me when they’re in trouble. (I can pout later.) But I see some reason in protests against the people whose commercial interests are harming the sport.
What stops me from knowing for sure whether I’ll participate in the protest on Sunday is my generic protest history. I work in downtown Chicago next to the City and County building and have walked by many a protest I thought worthy of my participation, including recent protests in the Laquan McDonald case, where police officers shot to death a teenager who was in no way threatening them and then many in City government participated in ensuring no one knew about it, protests over the continuing lack of safety in the poorest corners of the community, protests over atrocities in foreign lands. It seems a bit lame to commence my protesting history against a pocketbook issue, certainly not the biggest problem in the world.
Still, sometimes you have to start small. We’ll see.
We’re off to the airport!