LONDON, United Kingdom, Dec 19 – Leicester City’s fairytale Premier League title win made 2016 the year of the underdog in English football, but as 2017 approaches, the giants are emerging from their slumbers.
A team of misfits and cast-offs marshalled by twinkly-eyed Italian manager Claudio Ranieri, Leicester pulled off a 5,000-1 triumph that was one of the biggest upsets in the history of sport.
But just as Ranieri predicted, the big clubs flexed their muscles in the close-season transfer window and as the Foxes faltered, so a cast of superstars set about re-establishing the old order.
“It’s more difficult than last season,” Ranieri said — prophetically, as it would transpire — of his side’s title chances on the eve of the season.
“It’s easier that ET comes to Piccadilly Circus.”
As 2016 dawned, Leicester were in second place, below leaders Arsenal on goal difference, their surprisingly high placement seen as an aberration caused by the inconsistency of the superpowers.
But as the big guns continued to misfire, so Leicester continued to win — 1-0 at Tottenham Hotspur, 2-0 at home to Liverpool, a stunning 3-1 victory at Manchester City.
By the spring the unthinkable had become thinkable and although teams belatedly realised Leicester had to be taken seriously, they forged on, a run of five gritty wins carrying them to within sight of glory.
Tottenham had emerged as Leicester’s biggest rivals, but Mauricio Pochettino’s exciting young team could not last the pace, eventually conceding defeat in a bruising 2-2 draw at outgoing champions Chelsea.
Watching the game on television at the home of striker Jamie Vardy, Leicester’s players erupted into joyous celebrations captured on left-back Christian Fuchs’s smartphone and beamed around the world.
It was the most surreal title win England had ever seen.
Andrea Bocelli, the Italian tenor, sang on the pitch at the King Power Stadium.
Former Leicester striker Gary Lineker presented BBC’s flagship ‘Match of the Day’ highlights programme wearing only a pair of white boxer shorts after betting they would not do it.
Rough-cut talisman Vardy and jinking Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez cleaned up in the end-of-season awards, having cost Leicester a combined total of just £1.4 million ($1.8 million, 1.7 million euros).
– Pogba returns –
But there was little sign of bargain-hunting in the transfer window that followed.
Instead, spending rocketed past £1 billion for the first time as clubs lavished the proceeds of new £8 billion TV deals in an unprecedented splurge.
Manchester United smashed the world transfer record to bring French midfielder Paul Pogba back to the club from Juventus in a heavily trailed £89.3 million deal.
Manchester City spent big on John Stones and Leroy Sane, Arsenal on Shkodran Mustafi and Granit Xhaka, Chelsea on old boy David Luiz and Leicester lynchpin N’Golo Kante, Liverpool on Sadio Mane.
The biggest incoming personalities, however, pitched up in the dug-outs.
City finally lured Pep Guardiola to the Etihad Stadium from Bayern Munich, enabling him to renew his sulphurous rivalry with Jose Mourinho, who alighted across town at United following his sacking by Chelsea.
Mourinho took over from Louis van Gaal, who led United to FA Cup glory before paying the price for two years of stagnant football and overblown philosophising.
Zlatan Ibrahimovic joined Mourinho at Old Trafford, resuming their Inter Milan collaboration and putting him in direct opposition with Guardiola, who he branded a “coward” after they fell out at Barcelona.
But both Mourinho and Guardiola have been eclipsed by new Chelsea manager Antonio Conte, whose late-September switch to a 3-4-3 formation served to catapult the west London club to the top of the tree.
“After the first six games of the season, I was wondering what Antonio Conte was doing,” said former United defender Phil Neville.
“But then he changed to the formation that brought him such success with Juventus and Italy, and they have not looked back.”
Jurgen Klopp’s all-action Liverpool, Arsene Wenger’s Arsenal and League Cup winners City lead the pursuit, the latter adjusting unsteadily to Guardiola’s possession obsession, with Spurs and United close behind.
Leicester, meanwhile, have been dragged into a relegation fight, but the Champions League has brought a welcome distraction, the Foxes cruising into the last 16 along with City and Arsenal to keep the flame aflicker.