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08th Dec 2019

It’s Liverpool’s to lose, but Rodgers’ brilliant Leicester are the most likely title challengers

Simon Lloyd

Leicester made history on Sunday

Never before, not even in their exhilarating run to the Premier League title in 2016, had Leicester City recorded eight consecutive top flight victories. At Villa Park on Sunday afternoon, they reached that milestone, firmly establishing themselves as the main threat – possibly the only threat – to Liverpool’s dream of ending their three-decade wait for a league crown of their own.

While Manchester City crumbled in their derby on Saturday night, Brendan Rodgers’ side rarely looked like faltering against Aston Villa. Jamie Vardy opened the scoring on 20 minutes, rounding Tom Heaton – and a stumbling Ezri Konsa – before slotting home. His strike partner Kelechi Iheanacho later doubled that lead, turning home James Maddison’s cross from inside the six-yard box. Jack Grealish’s deflected effort shortly before half-time briefly raised hopes of a Villa comeback, though Jonny Evans’ perfectly placed header soon after the interval restored Leicester’s two-goal cushion. The final touch was applied by Vardy, 15  minutes from the end.

The win was enough to take them six points clear of the Premier League champions on 38 points, the kind of tally that, in a normal season, would be enough for them to be sitting comfortably clear at the summit. Liverpool’s relentless streak of victories, interrupted only by a 1-1 draw at  Old Trafford, means Leicester are instead second, eight points adrift. Though not insurmountable, this gap is clearly a significant one. Even in December, this is a title that is very much Liverpool’s to lose.

Whether or not Leicester do sustain any form of meaningful challenge, the very fact that such conversations are being had is testament to the work Rodgers has done since taking charge. When appointed in late February, Leicester were languishing in 12th in the league and had lost four consecutive home games. They had accumulated six points fewer than they have already this season, despite having played 11 games more.

Though Rodgers steered them to a ninth-place finish in the remaining weeks of last season, there was still little indication their scintillating run of form was on the horizon – less so when Manchester United eventually managed to prise Harry Maguire away in the summer. Though making Youri Tielemans’ loan move a permanent one was seen as a positive step, further additions of Ayoze Perez from Newcastle and Sampdoria’s Dennis Praet hardly constituted a transformative major first team overhaul.

And yet, despite all this, Rodgers’ Leicester have looked every inch a club challenging for the league. At the back, Çağlar Söyüncü’s accomplished displays alongside the ever-reliable Evans have helped fill the void left by Maguire. In Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira that have one of the best full-back pairings in the league. With Kasper Schmeichel behind them and Wilfried Ndidi ahead, their defence have accumulated seven clean sheets to date – more than any other side in the Premier League. Ahead of them, Tielemans has consistently dictated play further up the field while Maddison has established himself as one of England’s finest young playmakers.

With only a few minor adjustments in terms of personnel to the squad he inherited from Claude Puel, Rodgers has implemented a faster, more intense style of play. Nobody has benefitted from this more than Vardy, as is borne out by his impressive scoring streak. The game against Villa was the eighth consecutive league match in which he has scored, enough for him to close in on his own record of 11. Currently the Premier League’s top scorer, calls for him to reconsider his decision to retire from international football will only grow louder if his form continues.

It is fitting that a rejuvenated Vardy, whose goals carried Leicester to the league title three years ago, should be spearheading their latest unexpected surge towards the top. It also serves as a reminder of how much has changed since 2016. He and Schmeichel aside, there are few members left of their title-winning squad. Some have retired; others have been sold on to supposedly bigger clubs. Crucially though, shrewd transfer dealings have ensured that all have been adequately replaced. On top of that, the arrival of Rodgers has shaped them into one of the Premier League’s most exciting teams.

So, will they have enough to overtake Liverpool in the months ahead? Logically, you’d still have to say no. But if recent footballing history has taught us anything, it’s this: Leicester City have form for upsetting the odds.