MANCHESTER, England (AP) — A glance at the top of Europe’s big leagues tells a mostly familiar story after a third of the season.
Bayern Munich leads the German league by eight points already. Paris Saint-Germain is even further clear in the French league, holding a 13-point advantage. And in Spain, Barcelona has pushed four points clear and is hitting its stride.
But switch to the English Premier League, and there’s a remarkable story unfolding.
Leicester, a team that only escaped relegation last season after winning seven of its last nine games, is the unlikely leader after 13 games. Many pundits ridiculed its offseason hiring of Claudio Ranieri as manager following his disappointing spell with Greece’s national team, and predicted another relegation fight for a club that has bounced between England’s top two tiers in recent years.
Few, therefore, would have imagined that a match between Leicester and Manchester United in late November would involve the teams in first and second place, respectively. And while United is crawling toward the summit on the back of a miserly defense, Leicester is already there by playing a ruthless attacking style for which United was once famed.
In pacey striker Jamie Vardy, Leicester has a player that has netted in each of his last 10 league games to tie a Premier League scoring record held by former United star Ruud van Nistelrooy since 2003. That Vardy could break the record against United is another subplot to the game at the King Power Stadium. Algeria winger Riyad Mahrez has been as impressive this season for Leicester, scoring seven goals and setting up six more to become arguably the most dangerous player in the league.
Leicester has the worst passing accuracy in the Premier League, and only two teams have had less than its overall 43 percent possession. Yet the side nicknamed the Foxes are the top goal-scorers in the division with 28 and have won more points — 10 — from losing positions than anyone else.
A strong work ethic, belief, and a sprinkling of stardust in Vardy and Mahrez — these are the keys to Leicester’s success.
“We’re just a solid team,” Leicester midfielder Danny Drinkwater said. “We play to our strengths, try and not play to our weaknesses — it’s not rocket science. It’s hard to point to a fault at the minute.”
And this is no brief uprising. Since the end of March — a period spanning 22 games — Leicester has won more points than any other Premier League team, six more than its nearest rival Manchester City.
Now comes the real test, though. Over the next six games, Leicester takes on the giants of the league, starting with United before playing Everton and Liverpool away and Chelsea and Man City at home. Perhaps only by the turn of the year will it be clear if Leicester — in first place for the first time since 2000 — is the real deal and a genuine top-four contender.
“We know that sooner or later we will lose,” Ranieri, whose team holds a one-point lead, said Thursday. “We just want to show our great character. The spirit of our group is so strong.”
Here are some other things to know about the upcoming Premier League games:
Man United lost 5-3 to Leicester the last time it visited the King Power Stadium. A repeat of that score is highly unlikely for two reasons — United now has the tightest defense in the league, but is also struggling to find the net.
United manager Louis van Gaal acknowledged he is “worried” about the team’s lack of cutting edge after four goalless draws in the last seven games, and United captain Wayne Rooney is urging his side to be more “ruthless.”
A year ago, an injury update on Francis Coquelin would barely have registered at Arsenal, never mind the rest of the league.
But so crucial has the defensive midfielder become at the Emirates Stadium that a 12-week layoff because of a knee injury, announced by manager Arsene Wenger this week, comes as a huge blow to the team’s title hopes, as no other player can protect its back four like Coquelin.
Arsenal, which is in fourth place, has a long injury list for its trip to Norwich but midfielder Aaron Ramsey is ready to return after a month out.
Third-place Man City looks to rebound from its 4-1 mauling by Liverpool in another home game, against Southampton.
Chelsea makes the short trip to Tottenham for a London derby on Sunday, seeking a third win in eight days to continue its recovery after a woeful start to the season.