Leicester City’s rise from relegation strugglers to champions means expectation levels will now rise across the board in England’s top flight – who will come out on top next?
Chelsea’s players might have presumed before a ball was kicked this season that their match against Leicester City on the final day would feature the champions playing in it. Any among them with that idea was proven right, ultimately, but not in the way they might have expected.
It was Chelsea, not Leicester, who were tasked with providing the guard of honour as the title winners were applauded onto the field. Claudio Ranieri returned to Stamford Bridge for the first time in charge of an opposing Premier League team and he was doing so having led the Foxes to the very top. The most unlikely league champions in history came to London to close the book on a season that defied both logic and explanation.
What Leicester’s success has done is increase expectation levels across the league’s participant clubs. Fans on the ground and owners alike will not stand idly by and settle for anything other than the best. Because Leicester won the league, supporters at all clubs will be wondering why their own 5,000-1 shot can’t come in too.
With the new television deal kicking in next season – worth some £5.13 billion domestically – managers will see patience diminish that bit more. Some 13 managers have lost their jobs since the end of the 2014-15 season. More are sure to join them before the new season starts. If standards aren’t met, it’ll be the man in the dugout who’ll pay the price first.
The emergence of Leicester and the crashing of the top four by Tottenham means that the traditional clubs are having to fight harder than ever for the domestic dominance that once came naturally to them. With bigger prize money and depth of internal competition, the Premier League can now be regarded as a more important tournament than the Champions League. Try and explain to a Real Madrid fan why their club will get some €80m for winning the Champions League while the team that finishes in Aston Villa’s place next season will get something like €125m.
Clubs at that end of the table have the means to keep their better players for longer while the likes of Stoke City, Southampton and West Ham United will be able to outbid and pay more wages than big overseas teams. We’ve already seen evidence of that with players like Xherdan Shaqiri, Sadio Mane and Dimitri Payet opting for relatively modest English league sides over more illustrious continental names.
Liverpool are an exciting if inconsistent prospect under Jurgen Klopp while Antonio Conte knows little else than obliterating the domestic landscape after huge success with Juventus in the past. That will surely stand him in good stead as he joins a Chelsea side in a state of not inconsiderable reconstruction.
All that before we’ve even considered Pep Guardiola. He looks to have all but avoided the indignity of a first season competing in the Europa League with Manchester City but the scale of his challenge is more daunting than the one he had at Bayern Munich. If failing to win the Champions League with the Bavarians scarred his reputation as the best coach in the world, outstripping expectations at the Etihad might just help rehabilitate it.
On the other side of town, Louis van Gaal asked his players to be horny and said hair pulling was a suitable activity only in “sex masochism”. The Dutchman has been quote-worthy if not noteworthy at Old Trafford. Another season outside the elite beckons regardless of any FA Cup success. All that money spent and little in the way of achievement.
Newcastle, too, offer the counterbalance to the point that spending your way out of trouble is the way forward. They splashed out around £80m this season in a futile attempt to stay up. Money without design might well be the next big Premier League challenge to overcome.
Rafael Benitez must be wondering what circle of hell he’s entered. He started the season in charge of Real Madrid, gearing up for an assault on the Champions League with Cristiano Ronaldo. He’s now staring at the Championship after relegation.
Even worse, Aston Villa spent plenty with even less to show for it. They have, collectively, put in one of the most embarrassing seasons in Premier League history given the £50-odd million spent on new players. Joleon Lescott’s infamous luxury car tweet from his pocket just about eclipses the twin suspensions of Gabriel Agbonlahor as the lowest point in a season of lows.
If spending a lot for no return is the main issue at the bottom end of the table, then fans at Arsenal have the opposite problem. They pleaded with Arsene Wenger to sign some players before the season started. In the end he only went for Petr Cech, with Mohamed Elneny arriving in January, and this year, above all others, it was probably there for the taking for the Gunners.
They enjoyed their pathetic St Totteringham’s Day celebrations following Spurs’s collapse against Newcastle on the last day and there are plenty of questions to be asked about how Mauricio Pochettino’s team tailed off at the end of the season. Paris St-Germain and Manchester United were both mentioned as possible destinations before he committed to a new contract and demonstrate that he’s most certainly a man in demand. Can the Argentine take the north Londoners even further next season?
That’s also the challenge for Leicester. They have won the title and are expected to perform like champions now. What if this season’s initial expectations are met next season? What if they do experience a dip and finish, say, 10th? Will that diminish the fairytale aspect? Most certainly, and Ranieri will likely be paying for it with his job.
For now though, they can savour it all; Jamie Vardy and his record of scoring goals in 11 consecutive Premier League games, Ranieri causing the axe to fall on Jose Mourinho with a 2-1 win in December. That was the game where the paths of those two old rivals really crossed. The Italian was ringing imaginary bells to get his team switched on in training; the Portuguese’s players were chucking bibs at him from the substitutes’ bench.
It’s not only the Special One that was swept away by Leicester, though. We all were. It’s been a truly remarkable season.
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