The Strike: Riyad Mahrez v Man City and the moment Leicester started to believe

The Leicester City story may well be fading from memory as the Premier League soap opera never ends.

In the meantime, the arrival of super-managers and the consolidation of power amongst the top clubs seems to have been almost a direct response to one of the greatest footballing stories ever told. And yet, the drama in the intervening period makes the memory fade faster.

Perhaps that’s because the fairytale can’t boast a ‘where were you when Leicester won the title’ moment. The Foxes won the league by a whole ten points – one of the biggest gaps in Premier League history – even if it felt like they could have slipped up at any time, and only in hindsight after Tottenham’s combative draw with Chelsea towards the end of the season did it seem like a genuinely comfortable victory.

But what it lacks in only one iconic moment it makes up for with many. That’s the nature of a league season: there are thrills and spills, and in the case of Leicester, people erroneously writing them off at every turn.

If there is no ‘where were you’ moment, though, perhaps we should create a ‘when did you’ one; specifically, when exactly did you start to believe that the impossible was truly possible?

For some, it wasn’t until they’d actually done it, and even then it was only pinch marks that proved it. For others, it was their victory over Liverpool in February that seemed to make it all real. For me, it was the very next game: when the Foxes ran riot at the Etihad Stadium in early February.

Rarely does a team come to the east Manchester these days and come away with anything, let alone victory. Even a solid performance and heads held high is becoming a rarity under Pep Guardiola. But in 2015/16, under Manuel Pellegrini, City were a different beast: they were fearsome and stunning on their day, but that day was becoming rarer.

Still, though. This was Manchester City. With Chelsea in meltdown after Jose Mourinho’s sacking, with Manchester United and Liverpool in transition, with Tottenham only starting their rise and Arsenal being Arsenal, surely there was to be only one winner of the league, and surely it was City. And when Leicester turned up at the Etihad, the one winner did indeed take to the field.

The game felt like the moment that Leicester would pop. This was clearly a side who were punching above their weight, but a trip to the side who were tipped, by September, to run away with the title and win with a points margin in double figures was surely going to start the comedown.

The tragedy of that season, for City, Arsenal and Spurs, is surely the fact that Leicester were so repeatedly written-off that they were asked to prove themselves on a weekly basis. And so when the whistle came to start the game at the Etihad, the Foxes once again started like a team with a question to answer: within three minutes, they were ahead.

One of the great ironies of that season is that the side who finished in second place, Arsenal, were the only team to do the double over the champions. An even greater one is that their two other challengers for most of the season – though City dipped in the second half of the campaign – were beaten partly thanks to goals by Robert Huth.

The German scored only three times in the 2015/16 campaign as Leicester triumphed, but they were crucial: one a late header in a 1-0 victory over Spurs at White Hart Lane and the other two at the Etihad in February, either side of a Riyad Mahrez speciality.

Perhaps it spoke to City’s weaknesses, too. Mahrez outmaneuvered a committed Nicolas Otamendi whose rashness at centre-back contrasted so totally with the measured – but injured – Vincent Kompany. He then beat Martin Demichelis before firing past Joe Hart, who was rooted to the spot.

And yet, rather than see it as a failing on the part of the Manchester City defence, it should be seen for what it is: the moment when it became clear that Leicester, at least for a season, belonged where they were. Top of the league.

They’d go on to win the game 3-1, but only thanks to a late Sergio Aguero consolation. It was too late for City to come back, and probably by this point, too late for anyone else to really catch the Foxes. Claudio Ranieri’s side would lose the very next game – away to Arsenal – but it was the belief instilled in the side from the annihilation of Manchester City at the Etihad that saw them through that rare reversal. They wouldn’t lose again all season.

In some ways, winning a league title – unless it goes right down to the wire – means fairytale moments are hard to come by. You can rarely pinpoint a single moment that changed the course of an entire season, even when we try we’re always manufacturing some sort of storyline: a season is usually too long for one defining moment. But rather than look for one to define the miracle, perhaps it’s best to pinpoint the moment when the impossible started to seem achievable. And one Saturday lunchtime at the Etihad was where the Foxes seemed to truly belong.

 


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