Leicester City v Leeds United – Stylish Foxes are blueprint for Whites to follow
It is a tantalising prospect.
Leicester are the blueprint for all aspiring clubs seeking to gain entry into the Premier League’s exclusive top table.
Their stunning title success in 2015-16 was the equivalent of gaining a party invite and acceptance.
A season of Champions League football followed when they reached the quarter-finals, only to be knocked out by Atletico Madrid.
Successive top-ten finishes were achieved in 2017-18 and 2018-19 and the Foxes qualified for Europe last season with a fifth-placed finish. For most of the campaign, they had been Champions League candidates.
Now, City – whose standing in the game was such that they were able to entice Celtic manager Brendan Rodgers back to England in February, 2019 – are right in the mix of the most open title races for years, while their reputation as being one of the most innovative and stylish sides in the top-flight is well established.
Leeds have earned kudos for their enlightenment on the pitch under Marcelo Bielsa, but being a part of the division’s elite is another thing entirely.
Leicester are some way in front of Leeds, two clubs who were both in English football’s third tier as recently as 2008-09.
A crowd of over 33,500 saw the pair play out a draw at Elland Road in Simon Grayson’s first game in charge on Boxing Day, 2008.
The reverse fixture at the King Power Stadium saw a late goal from Steve Howard put Leicester on the cusp of promotion, while Leeds had to wait a touch longer before returning to the Championship.
Chairman Andrea Radrizzani’s declared dream of Europa League football within ‘three or four years’ following extra investment after the club strengthened their partnership with San Francisco 49ers is one which is shared by Paraag Marathe, who has stepped up from director to vice-chairman at the club.
That is for the future, with Bielsa having enough to contend with in the here and now, even if Leicester may be without two game-changers in Jamie Vardy and Wilfred Ndidi tomorrow.
Sheffield-born Vardy, in particular, produced a masterclass in forward play in the reverse fixture at Elland Road in early November, which Leicester won 4-1.
For their part, Leeds – despite the scoreline – played their part by delivering a stirring second-half rally which bore comparison to their similar response in their home fixture with Manchester City in September.
They now face a Leicester side who were pegged back in a 1-1 midweek draw at Everton. Vardy was missing, but Bielsa is entitled to still recognise quality when he sees it.
Bielsa said: “In the game against Everton, they were the protagonists throughout.
“They had a spell where they circulated the ball very quickly in a very marked, offensive style. They played to try and attack.
“I think what stands out the most about Leicester is the way they combine and elaborate to attack and that’s the most dangerous thing about it.”
As for talk of them being contenders for silverware, Bielsa is circumspect and respectful of others.
“It would be too easy and I won’t be able to make a judgment on this,” the Argentine responded.
Perhaps one of the beautiful if understated values of Leicester has been the way in which a number of unheralded players such as Dennis Praet, Jonny Evans and Marc Albrighton all contribute to the team dynamic, alongside ‘superstars’ such as Vardy, James Maddison and Youri Tielemens.
It is a similar story at Leeds as well.
The likes of Raphinha and Rodrigo, both excellent in the midweek win at Newcastle, have received plaudits, alongside an international class midfielder in Kalvin Phillips.
Equally, the likes of Stuart Dallas and Luke Ayling have emerged as real unsung heroes by acclimatising pretty seamlessly to life in the big time.
Gjanni Alioski, a whole-hearted player who retains the strong respect of his peers in the dressing room, is another who has acquitted himself well amid top-flight surroundings.
The North Macedonia international, 28, who has made over 150 appearances in all competitions for Leeds since arriving in the summer of 2017, has been linked with a summer move to Turkish outfit Galatasaray, with his current deal expiring in June.
All the indications are that he is content at Leeds, certainly judging by his recent statements with contract talks between all parties remaining ongoing.
Bielsa said: “I am only one opinion in regards to the equation and evaluation of whether Alioski stays or not. First and foremost, the most important thing is that he wants to stay. I think when it comes to a player staying at a club, the most important thing is the player wants to stay. The player should choose the club; (but) the main conditions and most important thing is they want to stay. “If Alioski chooses Leeds, Leeds will choose Alioski.”
Leeds have had two Premier League games moved to night games next month. They host Crystal Palace on Monday February 8, and travel to Wolverhampton on Friday 19th.
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