LONDON – For a long time, the party at Jamie Vardy’s house, where Leicester City’s players had gathered to watch the game taking place at Stamford Bridge, must have been fairly muted. Tottenham Hotspur, needing a win to keep its title hopes alive, took a 2-0 lead at Chelsea and looked as though it would keep the title race alive for another week at least. Perhaps doubts were even beginning to set in.
But Chelsea, fighting with extraordinary ferocity in a game that degenerated into a catalogue of bad fouls and off the ball incidents, battled back, and, with seven minutes remaining, Eden Hazard curled in an equalizer that sealed Leicester an astonishing first championship in its history. The most extraordinary league title in history was secured after perhaps the most dramatic game of the season.
The bare facts have been recited often enough, but they bear repetition. Leicester was 5,000-to-1 to be champion at the beginning of the season. It was bottom of the table 13 months ago. Claudio Ranieri, its 64-year-old coach, had never won a league championship in his career in management. It’s the sort of story that would have seemed preposterous 30 years ago; amid the rigid financial stratification of modern football, it should have been impossible.
And there was, of course, something fitting in the fact the title should have been settled at Stamford Bridge. Twelve years ago on this ground, Ranieri bade his tearful farewells to Chelsea after 1-0 win over Leeds, still widely popular even as he was ousted to make way for Jose Mourinho. Nobody could have expected Ranieri’s first season back to end like this.
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Tottenham players, in the end, lost their heads. In the draw against West Bromwich Albion last Monday there had been a sense that Tottenham had lost its nerve. Here, it lost its discipline in a way that is sure to bring FA charges. Seven players were booked and Eric Dier was extremely fortunate not to be sent off after clattering into Cesc Fabregas having already been booked. Mousa Dembele is almost certain to be banned for jabbing a finger into Diego Costa’s eye in a melee at the end of the first half, and Erik Lamela could also be in trouble after standing on Fabregas’s hand. Kyle Walker had kicked out at Pedro earlier in the game.
Not that Chelsea was blameless, with John Terry shoving a forearm into Jan Vertonghen’s face. At the final whistle, there was a further fracas, Fabregas and Danny Rose clashing at the mouth of the tunnel and Costa then squaring up to Tottenham’s reserve keeper Michel Vorm.
A number of Chelsea players had spoken in the build-up to the game of their desire to help Leicester win the title over their City rivals Tottenham and there was a greater hunger to their play than in a number of games this season. Certainly the desire of the Chelsea fans to end Tottenham’s title bid couldn’t be mistaken. From the off, there were chants of “We hate Tottenham” and “Champions of Europe – you’ll never sing that.” A banner near the touchline read “Let’s Do It for Ranieri.”
Chelsea fans, fired by the urge to beat Tottenham, perhaps weren’t too bothered, but they must wonder why it had taken stopping Spurs to fire their players into action. After perhaps the worst season ever produced by a reigning player of the year, Hazard was an entirely inappropriate figure to score the goal that decided the championship.
At the start, it looked like Tottenham would postpone Leicester's day until at least the weekend. Fabregas had rolled a shot just wide and Hugo Lloris made a fine tip-over from Diego Costa. Tottenham’s threat had been a little muted, but after 35 minutes, Kane ran on to a perfectly weighted pass with the outside of his right foot from Lamela, rounded Thibaut Courtois and rolled in his 25th goal of the season. Eight minutes later it was 2-0, with Christian Eriksen judging the pass superbly as Heung-Min Son ran on and finished neatly.
But even then, Chelsea kept fighting and the tackles kept flying in. Gary Cahill pulled one back, volleying in superbly as Willian’s corner dropped to him in the box. Tottenham suddenly, looked panicked. Its defense wobbled. Chelsea had chances. A Walker touch deflected a Fabregas cross away from Costa when he seemed to have a tap-in. On the touchline, Pochettino became increasingly agitated.
And then, with seven minutes to go, Costa, playing with a passion he hasn’t shown in a year, barreled through the Spurs defense and laid the ball off. Hazard ran on and curved a shot high and around Lloris’s dive and into the top corner. In Leicester, the parties began, probably nowhere more than at Vardy’s house.
The impossible had happened.