No odds of 5000-1 in Leicester these days but reports of the Championship title race sailing towards a foregone conclusion are not what the city is reading about this morning. Enter Leeds United at the King Power and with them, the faint promise of something resembling an actual contest.
No doubt, admittedly, where the advantage still lies but the 14-point gap which existed between Leeds and Leicester City beforehand last night was invisible on the pitch and duly trimmed by a game which made it look as if Leicester had not been examined this surgically by the Championship. More than a reduction in Leicester’s freak advantage at the top of the league, Daniel Farke got what he wanted: the proof that Leeds can live with anyone in it.
Others can see as much too and that, perhaps, was the real value of a 1-0 win in Leicester. Ipswich Town, in second, go to Birmingham City today and can tell that Leeds behind them are not backing off. Psychology is rarely meaningless in these scenarios.
Georginio Rutter edged yesterday’s match with a tap-in on 58 minutes but the victory was deft and multi-faceted: a game plan which pressed Leicester to the wall, an air of confidence City were not entirely ready for, a masterclass from Glen Kamara in midfield, defending which saw off Jamie Vardy inside an hour and Illan Meslier intervening in injury-time, pulling off the black-run, Jesus-Christ save he always seems to have up his sleeve.
There were other incidents too, little sub-plots behind the main events, but nothing for Leicester to gripe about, despite Abdul Fatawu hitting the crossbar with a beast of a shot while the score was goalless before half-time. Leicester had earned themselves the luxury of playing with very limited pressure.
Leeds, thrust by thrust, succeeded in making them feel some until Sam Byram met Dan James’ corner with a header which Rutter poked in on the rebound. “The only thing that matters is where you are after 46 games,” Farke insisted. But a little grin said that this would help.
The table gives the impression that Leicester, in the mad flap that followed relegation in May, held it together better than Leeds, and patently they did. But it is not that Leeds are themselves in poor fettle; merely that Leicester clicking so sweetly provoked result-envy elsewhere.
City dropping short of promotion from here would be as close as it gets to the equivalent of their Premier League long shot in 2016 — not quite unthinkable but not far off. For the past few weeks, the Championship has thought more about what is going on behind Leicester, the most competitive division known to modern Europe made to look like a cinch, waiting for a scoreline like yesterday’s.
With hindsight, neither Leicester nor Leeds were perfectly placed to make a doddle of this season, but perhaps Leicester had key advantages: peace in the boardroom, the fairly expedited appointment of Enzo Maresca as head coach, a savvy choice thus far, and less disruptive churn in their dressing room.
Even though they were blindsided by relegation — Leeds’ wage reduction clauses were as high as 60 per cent while Leicester, as relatively recent Premier League champions and FA Cup winners, had nothing like the same contingencies in place — their big departures were dealt with quickly and did their bit for Financial Fair Play (FFP). City’s signings were orderly and none too scrambled.
Theirs was the smoother landing strip, for all that they reached it in a certain amount of disarray.
But Leeds, irrespective of the points gaps in front of them, are very happy with their lot. In the average year, 25 points from 14 games would have run them closer to the top two than they were prior to kick-off last night. They have acclimatised to Daniel Farke who, like Maresca, looks qualified and a competent pick for the job.
There are players at Leicester who Farke would take and players at Leeds who would appeal to Maresca; two squads with the class to get out of dodge. Everyone involved, though, would kill for City’s start, for form which has been threatening to make them untouchable. “We remain grounded,” Maresca wrote in his programme column, which is the sort of thing a coach says when there is no longer any way of pretending that public hype is going overboard.
Last night’s defeat did a better job of reining complacency in.
For Farke, the old rules of the Championship apply: that even if it is best to win the title, and even if that is what he is accustomed to as a manager, the priority here is escaping the division and giving yourself the best chance of doing so. There is a reason why so much is made of the annual play-off final and why that fixture has carried the moniker of the sport’s most lucrative contest for more than 20 years. In the end, the pot of gold is the same.
Leeds’ title in 2020 was a spectacle and a fitting way for them to be regarded as the best of the best in the Championship that year. In their own way, Marcelo Bielsa’s team were untouchable. But the real narrative was what promotion represented, of years of incompetence and EFL imprisonment finally broken. Put simply, no one at Elland Road would have argued had it happened via the play-offs with Bielsa, or had it happened 12 months earlier. Any which way was fine.
The play-offs, as any fule kno, are where Leeds go to die but with November a few days old and Farke’s squad bearing their teeth, any paranoia about them is for another day.
What the King Power saw yesterday was two teams who should go up: Leicester on the strength of their exceptional league position and Leeds on the strength of a performance which City could not resist.
Not exactly all bets off, but a cat among some hitherto unruffled pigeons.
(Photo: Michael Regan/Getty Images)