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One of the main narratives running alongside Leicester’s extraordinary run to the brink of the Premier League title is the modest resources they have done it with. Christian Fuchs was a free, as was Marc Albrighton, Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have provided a rock-solid centre-half combination for a combined £4.5 million whereas Jamie Vardy, N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, Leicester’s 3 nominations for the PFA Player of the Year award were signed for a total of £8.5 million.
Mahrez, the winner of that award with a contribution of 17 goals and 11 assists, arrived from Le Havre in the January of 2014 for £375,000, yet like Danny Drinkwater, signed for £675,000 in January 2012, and Danny Simpson, taken from QPR for £1.8 million in 2014, has been transformed into a league winner-elect by Claudio Ranieri. The job, of course, is not quite done but only 3 points are required from the Foxes last 3 games if they are to achieve the incredible.
The title can be sealed at Old Trafford on Sunday against Manchester United who, with over £250 million spent under two years of Louis Van Gaal, are reciting their own tale of money not equating with happiness as they prepare for a desperate late season crawl to make the Champions League.
Van Gaal will be able to field the luxuries of £35 million Antony Martial, the £38 million Juan Mata and the £28 million Wayne Rooney but as rumours again surface that the Dutchman may be leaving his post in the summer, how much would he have yearned for a player of the same impact as Mahrez or Vardy, signed from Fleetwood Town for just under £1million 4 years ago and has scored an astonishing 22 goals this season.
Vardy will not play on Sunday, currently serving a two-match for his reaction to receiving a red card in the draw at home to West Ham. Leicester dealt well without him in the first of those matches, cruising to a 4-0 victory over Swansea with the help of Ranieri’s supporting cast.
Again it didn’t cost much, with Jeffrey Schlupp, a product of Leicester’s youth system, stampeding down the left wing and Demarai Gray, a shrewd £3.5 million acquisition from Birmingham in January, brilliant on the right.
Scoring two goals however and proving that sometimes you do have to pay out for the best results, was Leonardo Ulloa, the £9 million signing from Brighton who, with Alexander Kramaric currently on loan at Hoffenheim, is the most expensive player in this Leicester team. Those goals against Swansea, a towering header from a set-piece and a tap-in after excellent work from Schlupp, took Ulloa to 6 goals for the campaign and Leicester to the brink of an historical feat.
Contrast with the vast fortunes on offer at Manchester City, Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea, or even at Tottenham and Liverpool, and it puts into context the size of Leicester’s achievement. With the odds stacked against them to the tune of 5,000-1, their costliest player an Argentine who joined as a 27 year old with previous experience mostly spent in the second divisions of Argentina and Spain as well as England, a team of bargain-basement acquisitions and cast-offs playing for a manager widely written-off before he’d even got a week into the job, they have the league so close they can touch it.
It has been a lesson in how to utilise a squad as efficiently as possible, Leicester making just 27 alterations to their starting XI this season, the least in the league. It has been a simple formula of regular starters and a regular array of willing deputies eagerly waiting their chance on the bench.
Ulloa has been one of those, starting just 6 times and coming on as a substitute 21 times, like he did when he emerged from the side-lines to hit the last minute winner against Norwich, a goal so important its celebrations registered a mini-earthquake around the King Power Stadium.
Ulloa’s contributions from the bench have been valuable both in goals, only Liverpool’s Christian Benteke and Divock Origi (with 4 each) have scored more off the bench than the 29 year old, but in helping to freshen Leicester’s game-plan of defending and pressing from the front with an average of 2.7 tackles per 90 minutes.
It has been testament to Ranieri that he has moulded a squad of remarkable togetherness, where he can rely on 8 players to start over 30 games in the knowledge that those in reserve will step up when required. Down to 10 men and a goal down in stoppage time against West Ham with doubt and anxiety beginning to set in, it was Ulloa coming off the bench again to assume the responsibility of a last minute penalty, driving it home to salvage the most valuable of points.
While Mahrez has taken the accolades and Vardy has taken the headlines, Ulloa has been the perfect foil to the ex-Fleetwood striker, Ranieri’s target-man plan B to the plan A of Vardy’s electric pace that springs ready to pounce on the shoulder of defences.
With Vardy the in-behind option Ulloa has been the man to get it wide and send crosses in towards, allowing for the change of approach that saw off Swansea. Albeit he is there for nuisance value as interestingly the 6ft 2 inch striker has won just 45 of his total 134 aerial battles, but Leicester’s relentless energy and determination will ensure their on-runners will get to any second ball that comes off the Argentine.
He will be the attacking focal point to the swarm of Leicester’s driving runners that will occupy Manchester United’s defence on Sunday, the striker who will offer the direct out-ball Ranieri’s team, with their 45% average possession the third least in the league, have shown over the course of this campaign they aren’t afraid to play.
One more win and Leicester, stunningly, will be champions, and on Sunday, like against Swansea, it will be up to Ulloa to help deliver it. Ranieri wouldn’t want to be relying on many others than his very own super sub.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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