Leicester City’s Premier League title dream became reality on Monday as their only remaining challengers Tottenham Hotspur drew 2-2 at Chelsea to complete one of the greatest ever sporting achievements.
The result provoked an outpouring of celebration in the provincial English city and as far away as Thailand and Japan, with Leicester’s players having watched nervously on television along with Foxes fans packed into local bars 160km away.
Goals from Tottenham’s Harry Kane and Son Heung-min had looked like extending the title race to the penultimate week of what has been an unforgettable season.
Gary Cahill gave Chelsea a lifeline just before the hour, however, and substitute Eden Hazard’s superb 83rd-minute equaliser ended Spurs’ slim title hopes to the delight of Leicester and their former Chelsea manager, Italian Claudio Ranieri.
As tempers flared at the end of a red-hot London derby at Stamford Bridge, television pictures cut away to Leicester’s players celebrating in the living room of their striker Jamie Vardy, whose 22 goals have under-pinned his side’s challenge.
Elsewhere in Leicester, the city’s biggest ever party began in earnest, with hundreds of fans gathering outside the stadium and thousands more celebrating in pubs and bars.
Leicester’s unlikely journey from no-hopers to English champions has captivated sports fans worldwide, nowhere more so than in Thailand, home of the club’s owners King Power.
Defender Wes Morgan, who scored his side’s equaliser in the 1-1 draw at Manchester United on Sunday, summed up the mood.
“Nobody believed we could do it, but here we are, Premier League champions and deservedly so,” he told Leicester’s website.
“Saturday can’t come quickly enough. I can’t wait to get my hands on the trophy.”
With two games left, Leicester are seven points ahead of Tottenham and Saturday’s home match against Everton will be a glorious lap of honour.
In one of the most unpredictable Premier League seasons ever, Tottenham had been hoping to win a first English league title since 1961, but fell short in agonising circumstances at Stamford Bridge where they have not won in 26 years.
“First of all, congratulations to Leicester City and to Claudio Ranieri. A fantastic season,” Spurs manager Mauricio Pochettino said.
“I’m very disappointed but now we have to fight for second place.
“It’s a massive, amazing season for Leicester, Claudio the players and the fans. They deserve it.”
Unfashionable Leicester, 5 000-1 outsiders at the start of the season, have become English champions for the first time and are the first club to win a maiden English title since Nottingham Forest in 1977-78, having left the likes of Manchester City and United, Chelsea and Arsenal in their wake.
Oddly, the biggest match in Leicester’s history was one they were not involved in as the final act of an absorbing title race was played out in west London between last year’s champions and a Tottenham side who have refused to give up the chase.
But Ranieri’s intrepid team had already done the damage, churning out results to stay top of the table since January 23 while their rivals fell by the wayside.
Since losing to Arsenal on February 14, they won seven and drew three of their next 10 games.
Incredibly, Leicester spent half of last season bottom of the league before a late surge lifted them clear of relegation.
With Ranieri replacing Nigel Pearson as manager, they continued that momentum and from being pre-season tips for the drop, became unlikely title contenders as former non-league journeyman Vardy scored in a record 11 consecutive Premier League games.
Even when they hit the top in January, many thought Leicester would fade, as they did in 1963, the last time they were in with a chance of the title.
As the chasing pack thinned, however, a youthful Tottenham stayed in the hunt for a first title since 1961 but Leicester’s draw at Manchester United put the trophy within touching distance.
Hazard’s late goal against bitter London rivals Spurs sealed the destiny of the title, prompting an outpouring of congratulations from a captivated nation.
“People will be talking about this in 100 years time,” Sky Sports pundit and former Liverpool player Jamie Carragher said.
Former England striker Alan Shearer won the title in 1995 with Blackburn Rovers.
“For a team like Leicester to come and take the giants on with their wealth and experience – I think it’s the biggest thing to happen in football,” he said.