Why Leicester must be taken seriously as Premier League title contenders

By Phil McNultyChief football writer
Marc Albrighton & James Maddison
Since the beginning of the 2015-16 campaign only Manchester City (547), Liverpool (534) and Chelsea (194) have spent more days at the top of the Premier League table than Leicester (175)

Leicester City have won a reputation as the Premier League's great front-runners this season - now they must be taken seriously after moving out in front as an increasingly unpredictable race for the title unfolds.

The Foxes have proved impregnable when they have gone ahead this term, the 2-0 win over Chelsea the 12th time in 12 league games this season they have claimed three points after going ahead.

It means no-one should have been surprised that they closed out the win that took them top ahead of Manchester United at the halfway point in their season, although the comfort with which they dismissed Chelsea will have alarm bells clanging for manager Frank Lampard and, rather more significantly, owner Roman Abramovich.

Lampard will know Abramovich does not do mates' rates when it comes to managers and he will go the same way as all the others he played under if Chelsea fall too far away from Champions League contention for the Russian's liking.

It was after a 2-1 loss at Leicester in December 2015 that Abramovich brought a brutal end to Jose Mourinho's second Chelsea reign and while Lampard may not have reached that point yet, this lame, heartless performance will not have helped his long-term prospects.

No such problems for Leicester, who are top of the table and moving with the ease of a well-oiled machine.

The Foxes are hardly unfamiliar with this position having been a constant presence in the top four, and often in the top two, last season until the Liverpool juggernaut broke clear, before they stumbled and missed out on the Champions League with a last-day loss at home to Manchester United.

Their points tally this season stands comparison to their Claudio Ranieri-inspired title win of 2015-16. In that campaign, they were second to Arsenal with 39 points at the midway point, while they now have just one point less from the same number of matches.

So should we take Leicester seriously as Premier League title contenders? It would be patronising in the extreme not to.

Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers (right) celebrates
Leicester City's Brendan Rodgers has now beaten all 34 of the teams he's faced in the Premier League as a manager

Brendan Rodgers has worked this part of the Premier League before, almost winning it with Liverpool in 2013-14 and pushing Leicester towards the top four last term.

And this victory was impressive evidence of the quality he has at his disposal, an elegant, pacy team that is superbly coached and organised.

Leicester still rely heavily on the old master, striker Jamie Vardy, but even on nights like this when his touch is not quite as sure as normal, they have potent weapons elsewhere, especially in the gifted James Maddison, who added the second after Wilfred Ndidi's opener.

They are also a monument to smart recruitment, especially when we witnessed their £50m summer sale Ben Chilwell struggling so badly for their hapless opponents Chelsea on Tuesday.

James Justin plays like an upgrade in Chilwell's place while the solid Belgium international Timothy Castagne is equally impressive at right-back.

The best acquisition of all, however, may yet be the outstanding 20-year-old French defender Wesley Fofana, brought in from St Etienne for a fee reported to be about £30m in the summer.

Fofana, a France Under-21 international, looks the complete package and already has team-mates like Jonny Evans suggesting he could become one of the world's best defenders.

He is composed on the ball, dominant in the air and possesses an air of confidence that belies his years.

It underscores just how bad Chelsea were that greater tests than this will lie ahead for Leicester but nothing must be taken away from just how good they were here.

Rodgers has pieced together a beautifully balanced side, with the industrious Ndidi the perfect foil for Maddison and Youri Tielemans in midfield, with Vardy fed by the plentiful supply line from Marc Albrighton and Harvey Barnes.

Reality suggests the Premier League champions will still come from the old guard, with Manchester City suddenly looking the most ominous of all, with the possibility of going back to the top if they beat Aston Villa on Wednesday, but it would be foolish and ignorant to dismiss Leicester in what is proving a topsy-turvy season.

Maddison, beaming with delight after a top-class individual and team performance, was playing it cool but there was no disguising the excitement at what could lie ahead.

"We're top of the league because we work hard," he said. "We're not there by fluke. We'll do our business in the background. Let them talk about Liverpool, Manchester United and Spurs. We'll just keep doing what we're doing."

And manager Rodgers added: "I don't really think about it [the title] - it's something which gets floated about and we have seen it all season.

"Tottenham a few weeks ago and Chelsea themselves, five or six weeks ago, everyone was talking about them.

"There is the quality of Manchester City, Liverpool are the champions and Manchester United have been great. For Leicester to be up with the level of the teams who are there makes me really happy.

"It's going to be a huge challenge to be up there but we are happy to take on that challenge."

Yes, Manchester City and Liverpool may emerge from the shake-up as the usual suspects, while Manchester United's hopes have risen and Jose Mourinho can never be ruled out at Spurs.

Leicester are certainly outsiders - just as they were five years ago - but no-one can argue with their current league position.

Rodgers and his players are showing quiet confidence off the field and the right sort of arrogance on it to say loud and clear that they must not be under-estimated.

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