PL25: Leicester heroics down Man United and hint at the greatness to come

To celebrate 25 years of the Premier League each week in Football Fancast we’re going to be looking back at a memorable game that took place on the corresponding date. This time out we revisit a high-scoring thriller that acted as a precursor for the greatest achievement in English football.

Eight goal thrillers featuring Manchester United are not supposed to end with them two goals to the poorer. Then again, Leicester City are not supposed to win the Premier League. Yet, 18 months after this incredible game the Foxes did precisely that with much of the same team. Indeed this utterly enthralling 5-3 home win was in many ways a preview to the greatest achievement English football ever bore witness to: the players involved just didn’t know it yet.

When Leicester were two goals down inside the first 16 minutes Leonardo Ulloa popped up with a priceless goal that gave them hope, just like he would do umpteen times the following year to criminally scant acclaim. When they conceded once more to a clever Herrera flick they turned to Danny Drinkwater to instil calmness in the centre-circle; to start pulling the strings with simple, linked passes. Then it was the Jamie Vardy show as he hustled two penalty awards (leaving both for team-mates to slot home), the first a flamboyant swan-dive, the second a stonewaller that saw young United defender Tyler Blackett see red. In between the future England international set up an emphatic Cambiasso equaliser before finalising a swift counter-attack in the ruthless fashion he would come to trademark the following year.

Nothing about that Leicester title-winning season made sense and the same could be said here as they embarked on their first campaign back in the top flight having topped the Championship back in May under Nigel Pearson. To this point their only defeat had been away to Chelsea, undone by Costa and Hazard like a hundred teams before and since, but their performances elsewhere had been stoic and sound. The previous week brought a 1-0 win away at Stoke. Now they had managed to overturn a two-goal deficit to Manchester United, not once but twice, and surely the bounce factor from being a recently promoted side and the self-belief gained from this amazing sluggathon would propel them through the autumn fixtures? On the contrary, it only led to a cataclysmic loss of form that next saw them taste victory in the new year.

As for the esteemed visitors, this was Louis van Gaal’s inaugural season and the drab short-lived Moyes era had been swept away pre-season in a slew of high-scoring, entertaining friendlies. LA Galaxy had been pulverised 7-0. Real Madrid and Liverpool had each been batted away three goals to one. The Dutchman clearly understood the club’s attacking ethos and license to thrill.

A home loss to Swansea on the opening day was a slap across the face while successive draws to Sunderland and Burnley were further reality checks with the Reds lumpen and unambitious throughout. Understandably then, Van Gaal was happy to describe Matchday four’s four-goal steamrollering of QPR at Old Trafford as ‘a new start’ with their expensive summer signing Angel Di Maria beginning to showcase his exceptional talents as United lined up with a potentially formidable forward line of the Argentine, Wayne Rooney, Falcao and Robin van Persie. So what was to be made of this then as United flew from the traps at the King Power Stadium with a close-range Van Persie header followed almost immediately by a sumptuous dink by Di Maria only for a second half implosion to reveal the side’s hollow core. “We created a lot of chances and made superb goals but you have to do that over 90 minutes, not 60 minutes. It was not enough,” the legendary coach said on the final whistle before pointing out the four books he’d brought along detailing Leicester’s strengths and weaknesses, books that his players had strangely forgotten to derive information from amidst the hurly-burly of a high-tempo classic.

In time Van Gaal’s adherence to graphs and data would prove to be his undoing. For now it was a minor, strange aspect of a thoroughly strange day, one that offered a sneak peek at the mind-blowing bizarreness that lay ahead.

What happened next?

The Foxes eventually recovered from their alarming, sustained slump winning seven of their last nine games to survive. For Pearson though the game was up and he was unceremoniously sacked in June, replaced by Claudio Ranieri. The appointment was greeted with surprise, even mirth, from many quarters.

Manchester United ended the campaign a respectable fourth but their early optimism that Van Gaal would bring the fun times back to Old Trafford had long since eroded.