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Leceister City demonstrating the value of hard graft - The Irish News
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Leceister City demonstrating the value of hard graft

Claudio Ranieri and Jamie Vardy have made a great partnership

THERE was a moment in last month’s Madrid derby that encapsulated all that is wrong with the celebrity footballer culture.

Regarded as one of the most intense derbies in world football, Atletico bagged the points in the Bernabeu thanks to Antoine Griezmann’s second-half goal. Since Diego Simeone took charge, Atletico have become one of hardest working teams in the modern age. Real Madrid, managed by Zinedine Zidane, sadly are not. 

The second-half was only beginning to establish some rhythm when Atletico went in front. Isco, one of the harder working Real players, lost possession in the middle of the field. The loose ball evaded Luka Modric, but there were still a couple of Real Madrid players - Toni Kroos and Borja Mayoral - in close attendance to recover possession. And if they couldn’t recover the ball immediately, they could at least get to Griezmann, who was now in possession and heading towards the home team’s goal, and deny him space.

Kroos could easily have caught up with Griezmann. That’s if he wanted to. Instead, he jogged back towards his own goal. Mayoral extricated himself by not even bothering to track back. Worse still, you could see James Rodriguez in camera shot on the flank looking for Atletico’s raiding left-back Felipe Luis. Like his team-mates, Rodriguez thought chasing back towards his own goal was a bad idea.

The upshot was the unmarked Griezmann exchanged passes with the unmarked Felipe Luis and the French international slotted into Real Madrid’s net with all the time in the world.

Given the high stakes nature of this derby, it was astounding to witness the lack of effort from players wearing the famous white compared to their opponents whose insatiable work ethic has become part of their DNA.

It is at moments like these you realise just how dysfunctional Real Madrid are. Toni Kroos is a wonderful attacking central-midfield talent. But he has never shown the same appetite for chasing back as he has for going forward. 

Which brings me in a roundabout way to Danny Drinkwater and Ngolo Kante. Had the Leicester City duo been on the field instead of Kroos and Rodriguez, Griezmann would not have had the freedom of the Bernabeu to score the only goal of the game. 

Like Atletico Madrid, Leicester are hungry footballers. As Atletico showed a couple of seasons ago, hunger can take you a long way, when they beat La Liga’s big two - Barcelona and Real Madrid - to the title. 

Leicester are the latest ‘Moneyball’ story. They’re everybody’s second favourite team. The unlikely Premier League leaders took another massive step towards the league title on Monday night by beating Newcastle 1-0 - their 12th single-goal victory in an incredible campaign - that leaves them 12 points clear of Man City and 11 of Arsenal. A team that has won 1-0 that many times is no fluke. It suggests they are a team that is comfortable in tight games. Which bodes well for the run-in. 

There is no secret to Leicester’s success. Left-back Christian Fuchs summed the team’s philosophy up in a recent interview: “Everybody fights and runs for each other,” said the Austrian international.

“There is no envy.”

Leicester City aren’t doing anything special. At the risk of down-playing his role, manager Claudio Ranieri is only doing what all good managers should do. The experienced Italian has Leicester well organised, they are tight at the back and they work hard for each other.

Central-defenders Robert Huth and Wes Morgan won’t win many prizes for their cerebral passing out of defence, but they combine to make an obdurate pairing. Their entire reason for being is to defend.

Of course, they have a bit of magic dust in striker Jamie Vardy, scorer of 19 goals and the team’s first line of defence, and they have Riyad Marhez, who has popped up with some crucial goals and assists.

Central-midfielder Kante was the first player in the Premier League to make 100 tackles this season and, according to Alex Ferguson, the Frenchman is well on his way to winning the player of the year.

After their gutsy 1-0 win over Newcastle on Monday night, Ronald Koeman declared it a two-horse race for the title between Leicester and Tottenham Hotspur. While card-carrying Leicester City supporter Gary Lineker suggested it would be the greatest achievement in team sport should his former club go all the way, the season will probably be remembered - rightly or wrongly - for the spectacular collapse of the Premier League’s big guns. 

Man City’s in-built narcissism and the ill-timed announcement of Pep Guardiola’s arrival next season has brought down their title challenge. Jose Mourinho’s narcissism and buck-passing ruined Chelsea’s title defence. Louis Van Gaal has spent over £200m, but has failed to make a team out of Manchester United, while Arsenal’s familiar erratic tendencies continues to haunt them. In a season pockmarked by spectacular managerial failures, somebody had to emerge to try and close the deal. Leicester look like that being that team. 

Most football fans hope Leicester City go on and win the title this season - not because they’re in love with their style of play or have an affection for Jamie Vardy’s monosyllabic post-match interviews, but because they represent something different, something more noble, earthy and meaningful to them compared to the celebrity footballer’s ambivalence to hard graft.

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