Strap yourselves in.
The race for the Premier League title remains a two-horse race after Tottenham easily dispatched Stoke City away from home, 4-0, on Monday night. The Britannia Stadium roared with the away supporters, who sent a strong message to table-toppers Leicester City: We are coming for you.
It was a night for the youth of England to shine, as Harry Kane and Dele Alli, both of whom should be starting for England in the upcoming European Championship, each netted a pair of goals. Kane’s brilliance set the tone early on, as he curled a ball to the far post as he has done with extraordinary consistency this season. Alli then finished a breakaway in the second half by chipping one over Stoke’s keeper Shay Given. Moments before Kane’s second goal, Alli broke free on goal, but poked his shot off the near post with the keeper out. He redeemed himself by capping the scoring with a lovely volleyed shot in the final minutes. It was as dominant of a performance as the scoreline suggested.
The win comes in response to Leicester’s heroic draw against West Ham United on Sunday, a match which saw Jamie Vardy sent off for two yellow cards, and Leonardo Ulloa tie the game with a penalty kick goal on the game’s final kick. Vardy is automatically banned for Leicester’s upcoming game against Swansea, and was further charged by the Football Association for improper conduct towards match official Jon Moss. If found guilty, Vardy could also miss Leicester’s massive match at Old Trafford against a Manchester United team that has won three of its last four matches.
It’s the ending that this iteration of the Premier League season deserves. With four games left (12 points at stake), Tottenham must overcome a five point deficit if they want to hoist the trophy on May 15th. Tottenham’s next test will come against West Bromwich Albion, a club which still technically needs a few points to secure a spot outside of the relegation zone, but should get plenty of help from Sunderland and Norwich, neither of which look capable of stringing together wins from now until the end of the season.
It’s the ending that the 2014-15 season lacked; Chelsea ran away with the title in the first half of the season, and despite not being nearly as dominant as they were when the calendar flipped over, still clinched the title with three weeks to spare. The exclusive club of Premier League winners will grow to six. No matter what Arsenal or Manchester City do down the stretch, their status as an also-ran is inevitable. This year, the hunt is on: Tottenham chasing the Foxes.
And that is wonderful for soccer. For too long, the Premier League (and club soccer in general) has been controlled by either the richest clubs, or the traditional powerhouses. While not trying to argue that the dominance of the Arsenals and the Bayerns and the Barcelonas of European soccer have been bad for the sport, it is a tad boring when you can automatically pencil in the same five teams to finish at the top of the table during the pre-season. This season, Leicester and Tottenham have shattered those usual predictions.
Leicester, as NBC Sports is constantly reminding us, entered the season at 5000-1 odds to win the title. But let’s not forget that Tottenham were also 100-1 odds of winning it all. By comparison, those are the same odds that the 3-9 Atlanta Braves have of winning the World Series. No matter who wins, it’s an inspiration. When you consider that 52 weeks ago, Leicester City were a penalty kick shot hitting the post away from falling behind Burnley 1-0 in a relegation battle, it becomes even more extraordinary. When they gained promotion to the Premier League in the Spring of 2014, the first thing that probably came to the minds of casual soccer fans was this incredible moment.
That’s Leicester City in the Football League Championship playoff semi-final, the second-best division in English soccer. The winner of a playoff between the third to sixth place teams joins the league champion and runner-up in next season’s Premier League. holding on to a 2-2 aggregate draw, Leicester had a tie-breaker in their hand: the away goal they scored in the first leg of the playoff. They got a late penalty for a chance to ice the game, missed it, and then gave up a goal on the other end to choke up a winner-take-all game at Wembley Stadium in the playoff final. Truly, you need to watch the video in order to appreciate the event.
When you look at their team, it becomes nothing short of a miracle. Consider that Jamie Vardy, who entered the season at 250-1 odds of winning the scoring title and has only gone on to score 22 goals which are second only to Kane’s 24. As recently as 2011, he was playing for a semi-professional team. That would be like the starting shortstop for the Long Island Ducks being picked up by the Yankees, and then win a championship and MVP along the way. Their Italian manager, Claudio Ranieri, was considered to be a senseless pick to replace Nigel Pearson, the man who helped Leicester avoid relegation by instilling what Men In Blazers‘ Roger Bennett called an “authoritative” work rate. But Ranieri’s passive demeanor has filled the side with a sense of confidence and freedom which it lacked so desperately last year.
Tottenham are just as good of a story. Were they second place to anyone but Leicester and they’d be the darlings of the sports world. Just as everyone thought that Spurs would come back to earth following a mediocre 2013-14 season (the same year they sold Gareth Bale to Real Madrid for seemingly the GDP of a third-world country), Harry Kane exploded onto the scene to help Tottenham to a respectable fifth place finish. This year, it’s the emergence of Dele Alli, the 20 year-old midfielder who was playing at League One side MK Dons a year ago. Not quite the Long Island Ducks of soccer; more like the Durham Bulls. Their manager is the Argentine, Mauricio Pochettino, who has found nothing but success in the Premier League. This is his third full season in charge of a Premier League club. He led Southampton on a glorious run out of a mid-season relegation battle to an eighth place finish before he took over Spurs in the summer of 2014. In his second season, he has virtually clinched a spot for Tottenham’s first Champions League appearance since they finished fourth in the league in 2010. And he still has a chance to win the title.
There are many more reasons for each team’s success. It would take ages to explain how unlikely of a title race between these two teams really is.
Jamie Vardy suspended for at least one match. Tottenham are red-hot and have an easier road to the end than Leicester. If Tottenham wins, North London will go insane. If Leicester wins, then there’s an insanity to the very laws of the universe. It’s possible for a team to play that one perfect game or series and slay a giant. We see it all the time whether it’s in the NCAA Tournament, or the Miracle on Ice, or the Marlins winning the World Series. The Premier League season is 38 games. There are no playoffs. You have to be at your best in every single game because the competition is so level. Any team can get lucky once, but no team gets lucky for 38 games.
The hunt is on.