Rise of the Underdog: Leicester turn the Premier League on its head

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The Foxes went from relegation certainties to English champions within the space of just over 12 months in one of sport's greatest shock victories

Just 13 months before completing arguably the biggest shock in modern sport, Leicester City were rooted to the bottom of the 2014-15 Premier League table.

The Foxes – under the tutelage of Nigel Pearson – had been in that position for over four months, with the gap to those outside the relegation zone having grown to seven points.

With four minutes to play during their April home clash against West Ham, that gap looked set to rise again to eight with the match locked at 1-1, only for Jamie Vardy’s scuffed shot to strike midfielder Andy King and deflect in off Hammers goalkeeper Adrian. It would seal just Leicester's third win since September.

It was poetic that King kickstarted Leicester’s rise, having joined them as a 16-year-old in 2004 and experienced the lows of their drop to League One – the first time the East Midlands club had ever been in the third tier of English football - as well as their climb back to the top flight.

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The victory over the Hammers began a run of seven wins from Leicester's final nine league matches as they ended the campaign having comfortably avoided relegation to finish in 14th position.

Pearson was not able to build on his success, however, as he was sacked following a controversial pre-season incident involving a number of players including his own son, James, in Thailand, with experienced tactician Claudio Ranieri parachuted into the job.

Ranieri had previously managed clubs such as Chelsea, Juventus, Inter, Atletico Madrid and Napoli, but had failed to win a first division title in his previous 19 years of management. His most recent job before arriving at the King Power Stadium had been with the Greece national team, though he was sacked midway through their Euro 2016 qualification campaign having overseen a terrible run of results that included two defeats to the Faroe Islands.

His appointment at Leicester was viewed by many onlookers with scepticism, including former England and Foxes striker Gary Lineker, who believed Ranieri had used up all his chances coaching at the highest level.

Claudio Ranieri Leicester City Premier League 2015-16

“Claudio Ranieri? Really?” the ex-Barcelona forward tweeted when Ranieri was announced. “Amazing how the same old names keep getting a go on the managerial merry-go-round.”

Despite Leicester’s hot finish to the previous season, Ranieri inherited a squad that looked devoid of attacking talent.

Their top scorer in the league had been journeyman Argentine striker Leonardo Ulloa with 11 goals, while his sidekick Vardy found the back of the net on only five occasions in 34 Premier League matches.

The Foxes' main winger Riyad Mahrez only contributed four goals and three assists while midfield playmaker Danny Drinkwater was in and out of the first team.

In a bid to improve their squad to avoid another relegation battle, Leicester spent just short of £30 million ($46m) on 10 players, including midfielder N’Golo Kante from France’s second division, Stoke City defender Robert Huth and Japanese striker Shinji Okazaki, while experienced Austrian full-back Christian Fuchs arrived on a free from Schalke.

On the face of it the new arrivals offered as much inspiration as Ranieri's appointment, and as such many felt Leicester were in for another tough season, with avoiding relegation seemingly their only target.

Using an unfashionable 4-4-2 formation, Ranieri set his system up to be defensively solid, with skipper Wes Morgan partnering Huth in a highly-physical centre-half partnership.

It quickly emerged that new signing Kante, who made his debut playing on the left wing against Bournemouth in August, was an excellent ball-winning midfielder, with his ability to intercept the ball regularly underpinned by his play-reading qualities.

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Drinkwater, meanwhile, worked hard in the engine room, with an expectation on the former Manchester United trainee to regularly play passes over the top of the opposition defence into space.

Almost overnight, Mahrez made the jump from inconsistent enigma to a world-class winger, with exceptional dribbling, finishing, movement and creative play.

Vardy, meanwhile, was employed as the main man up front alongside either Okazaki or Ulloa, with the pacy English striker able to sit on the shoulder of defenders and consistently put them under pressure with his intense pressing while constantly looking to get in behind using his speed.

With this ragtag bunch of players that initially seemed barely capable of battling relegation, Leicester produced the biggest upset in the league’s history – and across sport in general.

The Foxes only lost three matches in the entire league campaign – with each defeat marking the start of a significant hurdle for the team to overcome.

Leicester’s first loss – a 5-2 reverse to Arsenal in September – saw the team’s six-match unbeaten run to start the season end and their league position plummet to sixth.

A 1-0 defeat to Liverpool on Boxing Day – and a run of one win in five matches around the new year - saw the Gunners surpass the Foxes to become league leaders in the first two weeks of January.

And in March, now-leaders Leicester were left heartbroken by a 95th minute Danny Welbeck goal at the Emirates Stadium to condemn them to a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal despite valiantly playing more than 40 minutes with 10 men. The result would see the Gunners move to within two points of the summit.

Each defeat was seen as the beginning of the end for Leicester’s spell at the top of the table, with their squad not large enough to fight off the might and power of the Premier League’s biggest teams.

But despite their limited resources and finances, and with 11 of their players starting 28 or more league matches, the Foxes fought tooth and nail to secure the ultimate domestic glory against all the odds.

Vardy went from being a quick, hard-working battler to one of Europe’s most deadly strikers – scoring 24 goals to win the Premier League’s Player of the Season.

HD Riyad Mahrez Leicester City

Mahrez contributed an incredible 17 goals and 10 assists as he transformed into a lethal winger that would eventually earn a move to Manchester City.

The ever-unassuming Kante became known as one of the world’s best defensive midfielders, and was on his way to Chelsea not long after lifting the trophy.

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When the Foxes clinched the title following Tottenham’s 2-2 draw with Chelsea on May 3, Ranieri reflected in a fatherly manner on the club’s extraordinary achievement and indicated even he was not targeting the trophy.

“I'm so proud. The players have been fantastic. Their focus, their determination, their spirit has made this possible,” Ranieri said. "I'm a pragmatic man - I just wanted to win match after match. Never did I think too much about where it would take us."

Ranieri and Leicester have earned their rightful position in sporting folklore, with an against-the-odds achievement that will likely never be surpassed in Premier League history.

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