A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a column heavily criticizing Leicester City’s decision to fire its beloved manager, Claudio Ranieri. While I agreed that management had to take some kind of action to spur the Foxes into action, I completely disagreed with the manner in which they handled the situation.
I predicted that this decision would backfire catastrophically, leaving Leicester to become the first defending champion since the 1930s to be relegated.
It is time for me to admit that I was wrong.
Since letting go of the affable Italian, Leicester City has not lost a single game. This streak has included stunning victories over Liverpool, Hull City, West Ham and Sevilla.
Yes, Leicester City, the team that looked to be in danger of relegation, is now the Premier League’s only team left in the Champions League. Arsenal, Manchester City and Tottenham all failed to withstand the pressure, but somehow the team that was once in League One is exceeding all expectations.
For me personally, it is comparable to watching the Pittsburgh Penguins last year. A midseason coaching switch ultimately ended up leading the team to a Stanley Cup victory. While a Premier League title run is out of the question for Leicester, an even more unlikely scenario has now become possible once again.
It appears that getting rid of Ranieri was the best decision that Leicester’s owners could have possibly made.
Interim manager Craig Shakespeare — who will be in charge through the end of the season — has simply reverted to the formula that worked so well for the champions last year.
Gone are the questionable defensive decisions that left goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, the only player who stayed true to his last-season self, utterly defenseless against attackers.
Gone are the tentative striking options, where it looked like nobody other than Islam Slimani tried to score.
But most importantly, gone are the demons that plagued Jamie Vardy throughout the season. The way Vardy suddenly rediscovered how to find the net, scoring two goals in the game against Liverpool alone, was close to a miracle.
Even Riyad Mahrez, whose form I have found even more disappointing than Vardy’s, is back to looking like the Professional Footballers Association Player of the Year that terrorized teams last season.
Whatever the reason behind Leicester’s shocking early-season form, it appears that all doubts have vanished. The dream, amazingly, is alive again, and it is something that we should all get behind.
Nowhere was this more evident than in the pivotal Champions League match against Sevilla. Thanks to the first leg and the crucial away goals rule — a rather odd rule that many disagree with, myself included — meant that the Foxes were only facing a 2-1 deficit at home.
We all thought that it would be a swan song, a Champions League game to be played at the raucous King Power Stadium as the cherry on top of the greatest soccer story ever told.
The inexperience of playing in European football, coupled with the tumultuous coaching change, meant that Leicester would probably suffer a heavy defeat at the hands of the mighty Sevilla.
However, that was not the case.
From the very first minute of the game, the hunger and desire appeared evident in each and every single Leicester player. It was like watching the champions of last season all over again, except that, for once, the team did not miss the departed N’Golo Kanté.
That game ended in a stunning 2-0 victory for the Foxes, who now face La Liga heavyweight Atlético Madrid in the quarterfinals.
It is a daunting task, especially considering that Atletico has Antoine Griezmann at its disposal, but one that Leicester should be used to by now.
While the regular season will remain a disappointment — Leicester is still not completely safe from the dangers of relegation — the unlikeliest of dreams is thriving, defying all expectations.
I would not be surprised if Leicester surprised us once more by lifting the most coveted of European trophies, and while I am saddened that it will not be due to Ranieri, I take comfort in the fact that we can delight in Leicester once more.
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