Michelle Kaufman

World watches as Leicester makes push against all odds

Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, the English Premier League’s second-leading scorer, gestures to referee Jonathan Moss after being sent off last Sunday’s for an apparent dive. He will be suspended for this Sunday’s crucial match against Swansea City.
Leicester City’s Jamie Vardy, the English Premier League’s second-leading scorer, gestures to referee Jonathan Moss after being sent off last Sunday’s for an apparent dive. He will be suspended for this Sunday’s crucial match against Swansea City. AP

Yes, the NBA and NHL playoffs are under way, and they certainly offer plenty of excitement. But, for pure drama and historic significance, there’s no better sports story in the world right now than Leicester City.

For the second Sunday in a row, the eyes of soccer fans all over the world will be focused on the Foxes, who faced 5,000-to-1 odds to win the English Premier League at the start of the season and are now in good position to win their first top-flight title in the club’s 132-year history.

Heading into the final four games of the season, Leicester (pronounced “LES-ter,” for you latecomers to the party) leads the Tottenham Hotspurs by five points in the standings.

How happy is Italian coach Claudio Ranieri about his team’s surprising success and guaranteed spot in next season’s Champions League? So happy that he is inventing exclamatory phrases.

“Hey man, we are in the Champions League, dilly ding, dilly dong. C’mon!” he said, smiling, at a news conference Friday.

Dilly ding? Dilly dong?

Hey, when you’re the Leicester coach, you have permission to be giddy.

“It’s fantastic, terrific,” he continued. “Well done to everybody — the owners, the fans, the players, the staff, everybody involved in it. It’s a great achievement. Unbelievable. And now we go straight away to try to win the title. Only this remains. Mauricio [Pochettino, Tottenham manager], keep calm!”

It was the first time all season Ranieri acknowledged that a Premier League title was within reach. He had downplayed that story line all year.

The Foxes held a seven-point lead a week ago, but the gap shrunk after the Spurs beat Stoke City 4-0 and Leicester was forced to settle for a 2-2 tie against West Ham in a match with a wild finish.

In that game, which they managed to tie with a 94th-minute penalty kick, the Foxes lost leading scorer Jamie Vardy, who was sent off for an apparent dive and is suspended for Sunday’s game against Swansea City. Vardy is the second-leading scorer in the EPL with 22 goals.

Leonardo Ulloa, who scored the tying goal, will likely start in Vardy’s place. Ranieri believes his team can overcome the loss of Vardy on Sunday.

“I talked with my players: ‘Come on, now is the right moment to push,’ ” he said. “I believe. Always, I believe. I am a positive man. If Tottenham go above us, congratulations. But I prefer to be five points ahead. I think they’ll win the final four games. But I also think we’ll win. If we win the title, it will be unbelievable.”

Consider that in 2009, this team was in the third tier of English soccer. And last year at this time, Leicester was languishing at the bottom of the table, battling relegation.

It is, truly, one of the greatest comeback stories in recent sports history. It’s hard to come up with another team in any sport that was 5,000-to-1 odds to win a title and in position to then win the title.

Ranieri told the BBC he is motivated by the joy his team brings the fans of the previously unheralded team.

“I am glad when I see the people happy,” he said. “Football is a show. I believe if we win a match people go back home happy to their family. They go back to work happy — that is good for me.

“From the beginning, the fans came with me with their heart and started to sing some songs with me from the beginning. That was good.

“I know there were some people who said, ‘Why Ranieri?’ [when he was hired to take over], but the fans were always behind me. They were happy.”

So, what is his secret? How is it that a team could go from bottom-feeder to title contender in the span of a year without any megastar-player acquisitions?

“There’s no secret,” he said. “There are circumstances. This team has had fantastic circumstances throughout all the season. The big teams, no, they had some fantastic matches and then slowed down.

“When I was a player at [Catanzaro], they were a team and it was unique. We were together for 14 years with eight or nine of my teammates. We were very friendly, and Leicester are the same.

“The players are friends. They play for each other and help each other. That is one of our keys.”

Who’s leading

MLS: East — Montreal (12), Philadelphia and Orlando City (9), Toronto and New England (8). West — Dallas (17), Real Salt Lake (14), Colorado (13), K.C. (12), L.A. and San Jose (11).

NASL: Carolina (9), Minnesota and N.Y. (6), Indy and Tampa Bay (5).

EPL: Leicester City (73), Tottenham (68), Manchester City (64), Arsenal (63), Manchester United (59).

La Liga: Barcelona and Atletico Madrid (82), Real Madrid (81), Villarreal (60), Bilbao and Celta Vigo (54).

Serie A: Juventus (82), Napoli (73), Roma (68), Inter (64), Fiorentina (59).

Bundesliga: Bayern Munich (81), Dortmund (74), Bayer (54), Hertha (49), Monchengladbach, Mainz and Schalke 04 (45).

Ligue 1: PSG (86), Lyon (59), Monaco (58), Nice (57), St Etienne (54).

On the tube

Sunday: Sampdoria vs. Lazio (8:55 a.m., BEIN), Sunderland vs. Arsenal (9 a.m., NBCSN, TELEM), Sevilla vs. Real Betis (9:55 a.m., BEINÑ), Leicester City vs. Swansea City (11 a.m., NBCSN, TELEM), Getafe vs. Valencia (12:10 p.m., BEIN, BEINÑ), San Jose vs. Kansas City (3:30 p.m., ESPN, ESPND), Edmonton vs. Ottawa (4 p.m., ESPN3), N.Y. Red Bulls vs. Orlando City (7:30 p.m., FS1, FOXD).