- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 23, 2015

LONDON (AP) - Leicester reburied a medieval monarch and then its soccer team came back from the dead to become surprise contenders for the Premier League crown.

Back in March, Leicester City was in turmoil, languishing at the bottom of the Premier League. What the east Midlands city needed was a dose of positive global attention.

It came after a battle-scarred skeleton found under a parking lot in 2012 was identified by scientists as the remains of King Richard III. In a televised service attended by modern-day royalty, the king’s bones were given a dignified reburial in a grave in the city’s cathedral 530 years after his violent death.

“The city has only just got over burying a king and we had the eyes of the world on us in that period,” Leicester mayor Peter Soulsby said in a telephone interview. “We believed it couldn’t get any better. Well it just did.”

As the halfway point of the soccer season approaches, the city’s only professional soccer team tops the world’s richest soccer league. In a remarkable coincidence, the turnaround started in the first game after the March reburial at the King Power Stadium - named after the Thai owners’ retail company rather than the English monarch.

Having faced an instant return to the second tier, a seven-match winless run was halted and the team won seven of its last nine games to climb clear of danger, only losing to eventual champion Chelsea.

Even more surprisingly, Leicester carried that rich vein of form into the new season despite a managerial change that reinforced pundits’ perceptions that another relegation struggle loomed with some bookmakers rating the club as 5,000-1 to win the title.

Instead, Leicester has only lost once in 17 games, along with 11 wins and five draws. A victory earlier this month over the reigning champions whom they could depose in May no longer seemed such a shock, although it cost Jose Mourinho his Chelsea job.

The tale of the two clubs and their contrasting fortunes is the biggest surprise in the history of the Premier League. It has not been accomplished by a spending splurge by the Thai owners but through astute bargain buys coming good, and rivals are trying to figure out how to replicate the feat.

“I don’t know how it’s possible,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri reflected this week. “I think it’s a fantastic achievement. If I understood very well, never at this time was Leicester top of the league.”

This team, based in a city 100 miles (160 kilometers) north of London better known for its textiles industry and rugby side, has never won the top prize in English soccer. Not in the post-1992 Premier League era or any time stretching back into the 19th century. The only major honor Leicester has ever collected is the League Cup, with the third and most recent triumph coming in 2000.

Aware how close Leicester came to being relegated last season under Nigel Pearson - before the late revival that was not enough to keep him in a job - Ranieri has cooled fan expectations. The target for this season remains reaching the 40-point mark that should guarantee a place in the Premier League next season. That can be achieved at the halfway point on Saturday when a win at Liverpool would lift Leicester to 41 points.

As Leicester has remained among the front-runners throughout the season, the widespread expectation has been it was a matter of if - not when - Leicester starts to slip down the standings. Two matches from the halfway point and everyone is still waiting.

The whole season has been one long mission in defying the critics. Leicester was considered foolish for plucking Ranieri from the ranks of unemployed coaches to replace Pearson in July. It had been 11 years since he had managed in England with Chelsea - during which he was often labeled “The Tinkerman” for constantly changing the starting lineup - and he had been out of work since an embarrassing spell in charge of the Greece national team.

“I am waiting for when people change my nickname from ‘Tinkerman’ to ‘Thinkerman,’” quipped Ranieri, whose avuncular and calm demeanor contrasts with the league’s more erratic coaches.

One thing Ranieri does not own up to thinking about is lifting the trophy for the world’s richest soccer competition in May.

“I think we aren’t ready to fight to be champions,” he said, even as Leicester sits two points in front of Arsenal - the only team to beat them - and six ahead of Manchester City. In the offseason, Leicester’s net spending of around $30 million was one sixth of City’s outlay.

“We don’t have the high quality like City, Arsenal, but we fight together,” Ranieri said. “Every ball for us is the last ball. That’s what we believe.”

And unlike Manchester United, which has spent around $400 million in the last 18 months but is only fifth, Leicester has goal-scorers on a hot streak.

Neymar, Luis Suarez and Cristiano Ronaldo might be the world’s most valuable attackers. But none of them have scored as many league goals this season in Spain as Jamie Vardy has for Leicester with his tally of 15.

The only reason Vardy had made international headlines before this season started was for being filmed using racist language toward a Japanese man in a casino. The striker apologized and found the perfect way to show himself in a better light on the field: Breaking a Premier League record by scoring in 11 consecutive matches.

Not bad for a player who only cost Leicester 1 million pounds or 1/80th of Gareth Bale’s world-record fee when he joined Real Madrid from Tottenham in 2013.

And yet Vardy’s transfer did represent a gamble in 2012 for Leicester, which paid a record fee for a non-league player in a country which has 92 professional teams across four leagues to pluck talent from.

At one point, the 28-year-old Vardy was only earning 30 pounds ($45) as he combined muddy pitches with manual labor, playing in front of a few hundred fans at best. Now he is being valued at anything up to $50 million and linked with Chelsea and Manchester United, which are both struggling for goals and desperate for such a prolific target man.

“I pinch myself every day,” Vardy said. “Everyone knows the road I have had in the game, and how I have managed to get myself to where I am today.”

The Foxes are not relying on Vardy for goals. They also have Riyad Mahrez, whose 13 goals make him the joint-second best scorer in the league. The Algeria international was another unknown quantity when he was signed for only 400,000 pounds from Le Havre in January 2014.

What would destroy the dream is if Leicester cashed in on their success and sold Vardy and Mahrez in the January transfer window, ripping the heart out of the team.

“We make the city proud and that is a very good feeling for us so we have to carry on,” Mahrez said.

And it could get even better if there’s an open-top bus parade come May to exhibit the Premier League trophy.

“I haven’t yet wanted to pencil the date in my diary because that might just be tempting fate,” said Soulsby, the mayor. “But I have made a mental note.”

___

Rob Harris can be followed at www.twitter.com/RobHarris and www.facebook.com/RobHarrisReports


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