Jamie Vardy once almost quit football to embark on a new life in the sunnier climes of Ibiza but now happily admits "thank God I didn't".

On Saturday, Vardy will make history as the first player to have featured in every round of the FA Cup from the first preliminary round to the final when Leicester City face off against Chelsea in the Wembley showpiece.

But things could have been very different for Vardy, whose rise from non-league football to Premier League star and England international (albeit he is now retired from the Three Lions) is well documented.

Vardy made a £1million switch to the King Power Stadium from Fleetwood Town ahead of the 2012-13 season, back when the Foxes were playing in the Championship.

He managed just four goals and only 17 starts in the second tier during that first campaign, leaving Vardy questioning his future in the game.

Former team-mate Ben Marshall revealed earlier this year on an episode of popular UK podcast 'Undr the Cosh' how Vardy had planned to hang up the boots early and head to party town Ibiza.

Vardy spoke about that time in his life and how the confidence of former manager Nigel Pearson helped to convince him to stick at it.

"Moving to Ibiza felt a good idea at the time," he told the Daily Mail. "It felt a really good idea. Thank God I didn't.

"It was one of those things. I'd never been in that environment - playing in the Championship, struggling, the performances and the goals not coming and it does make you think.

"I had a chat with Nigel Pearson at one point and I was trying to get him to loan me back to Fleetwood, just because I'd had success there. He said 'listen, you're good enough, just knuckle down, you can play a lot higher'.

"At that stage, I knew he believed in me and after that, it all clicked together. It was a learning curve. The big jump in standard took a bit of time getting used to and then the season after we got promoted."

Vardy was vindicated in his decision, helping Leicester to the Premier League and he now has 116 top-flight goals.

His 24 in the 2015-16 campaign fired Leicester to a famous title triumph and Champions League football in the following season.

Leicester have not been back at Europe's top table since, though they are third in the standings with just two games to play under Brendan Rodgers this term, and have the cup final against Chelsea to play.

Vardy pondered whether the unexpected title win came too soon for the Foxes.

"Winning the league probably set us back a bit because it wasn't supposed to happen so we probably weren't ready for it, on and off the field," he added.

"I couldn't see any of this happening when I signed but it's where the club wanted to go and what they wanted to achieve.

"The owners were brilliant and always wanted to go up and up, and keep progressing. If you look at the nine years since I've been here that's all it's ever done. It's carried on progressing."

Five years have passed since Leicester City stunned the football world and sealed their astonishing first Premier League triumph.

The Foxes had faced relegation the previous season before rallying late in the year but then stormed clear at the summit in 2015-16.

Leicester are now regular Champions League challengers, yet the story of that campaign remains remarkable.

With Opta data, we tell the tale of their title success through their three key performers.
 

VARDY'S GOALS

Jamie Vardy's rags to riches football fairytale story is well documented, but by this point in his career it is fair to say he had not yet made the grade in the Premier League. 

Having scored 16 times in their 2013-14 promotion campaign, Vardy scored one, created two more and won a pair of penalties for the further goals in a delirious 5-3 defeat of Manchester United in September 2014, then did not net again until March 2015.

Team-mate David Nugent provided an obvious, easy comparison, the player too good for the second tier but not good enough for the top flight.

Nugent's 20 goals in 46 games in 2013-14 improved his Championship tally to 90 in 254. He had found the net only nine times across 64 Premier League appearances, though, and would add just five more from 29 matches for Leicester.

But where Nugent's 2014-15 season followed a familiar, underwhelming theme, Vardy improved drastically over the course of a relentless run-in.

Playing a vital role as seven wins from nine games lifted Leicester from the foot of the table, Vardy ended the season with five goals and eight assists. Three of his five strikes came from fast breaks, having been involved in 11 counter-attacks – the fifth-most of any Premier League player – as the Foxes found an effective way of playing.

Leicester had fewer fast breaks in 2015-16 (21) than the previous year (34) but still led the league in this regard and scored from six such counters. Four of those goals came from Vardy among a breakout 24 for the season.

Freed by a quick, direct set-up, Vardy ranked fourth in the league for shots (115), second for shots on target (53) and third for touches in the opposition box (221). The ultimate confidence player, Vardy scored in a record-breaking 11 consecutive matches.

The tireless forward maintained his nuisance factor, too, winning possession in the final third 33 times and earning seven penalties – both league highs.

The Leicester number nine took 20.87 per cent of his chances but only marginally outperformed his expected goals (xG) total, his 19 non-penalty goals coming from shots worth a top-ranked 18.34 xG.

Vardy has since become more clinical – peaking with 28.17 per cent shot conversion in 2017-18 – but has never again been so busy in the area.

MAHREZ'S GUILE

Anthony Knockaert also fell into that Nugent group, lasting a mere nine games at Leicester in the top flight having created 2.6 chances per 90 minutes in the first of his three Championship promotion campaigns.

Riyad Mahrez, signed in January 2014, was the Foxes' other star winger and also struggled in his debut Premier League season. Having been involved in seven goals in 19 Championship outings, he could only match that tally again across an entire year in the top division.

As with Vardy, though, Leicester's late-season resurgence allowed the Algeria international to carry momentum into the new campaign; he started the final four matches of 2014-15 and netted both goals in a win over Southampton.

And the improvement in Mahrez's play was even more pronounced.

There were two more goals against Sunderland on the opening day, among 13 by Christmas alongside seven assists. That pace slowed – he finished with 17 goals and 11 assists – but Mahrez trailed only Vardy for goal involvements.

Despite this, Mahrez was far from the most prolific creator. His 68 key passes ranked eighth but made up less than half of leader Mesut Ozil's output (146). Mahrez crafted high-quality openings, however, second only to Ozil (28) in creating 20 'big chances' – situations where Opta would reasonably expect a player to score.

This was all the more impressive as Mahrez was also required to provide an outlet for a side with the third-lowest average possession (42.4 per cent) in the division. Only Wilfried Zaha (274 to 255) attempted more dribbles, while nobody completed more (131).

Mahrez has never once attempted 100 dribbles in a season since joining Manchester City, but the close control and spellbinding skill that is merely another option at the Etihad Stadium then attracted defenders and opened space for sprinters Vardy, Marc Albrighton and Jeffrey Schlupp.

KANTE'S GRAFT

Gokhan Inler was presumed to be the replacement for Esteban Cambiasso, who had led Leicester's rescue act from midfield with five goals – as many as Vardy – at the age of 34.

Inler started only three games but for good reason. Fellow new signing N'Golo Kante was perhaps the biggest game-changer for the Foxes. Opponents might have dominated possession but they could never rest.

Kante, at Caen, had led Ligue 1 midfielders in tackles (178), tackles won (146) and interceptions (110) and ranked second for recoveries (369) in 2014-15.

The transition to the Premier League was seamless. He was first again for tackles (175), tackles won (125) and interceptions (156), although he fell to third in terms of recoveries (326). The man in second was Leicester team-mate Danny Drinkwater.

What the Foxes lacked without the experience of Cambiasso, Kante's bite more than made up for.

The midfielder became more careful in possession following his move, too, losing the ball with just 18.1 per cent of his touches, the lowest rate of any Leicester player with 1,000 touches or more and an improvement on his 23.4 per cent with Caen.

Even then, it was not as straightforward as a single signing fixing every issue. Idrissa Gueye, another Ligue 1 recruit, ranked second in tackles, tackles won and interceptions and first in recoveries yet was relegated with Aston Villa.

But Kante's infectious tenacity set the standard at the King Power Stadium and only Tottenham blocked a greater share of their opponents' shots (32.7 per cent) than Leicester (30.6), contributing to a conversion rate of just 6.9 per cent.

When Kante then left for Chelsea at the end of 2015-16, struggling Leicester waited only until January before signing another tough tackler in Wilfred Ndidi, one of just two players – the other being Gueye – to have since registered 130 or more tackles in a single Premier League season (each doing so twice).

In that time, nobody has been able to match Kante's title-winning mark.

You could be forgiven for thinking the lines between reality and fantasy had blurred into one this week with the seemingly doomed experiment of the European Super League.

But fans of actual fantasy football can rest assured we have still scoured the best prospects to help you in your quest to top your private leagues and earn bragging rights among your pals.

With Premier League leaders Manchester City not in action due to playing the EFL Cup final against Tottenham this weekend, there are sure to be a few transfers needed in several teams.

That being said, take a look at our hand-selected picks, powered as always by Opta data…

ROBERT SANCHEZ

Brighton and Hove Albion have a poor record against teams in the Premier League's bottom three, winning only four of 24 such games – the 17 per cent win rate representing the lowest return of any team in the competition to have played a minimum of 10 such games.

However, Sheffield United are the lowest scorers in the division this season (17) and have failed to score in 18 different games, a league worst.

Moreover, Brighton's Robert Sanchez has eight Premier League clean sheets to his name in 2021. Only Ederson (10) has managed more.

VLADIMIR COUFAL

West Ham have won three of their last five home league encounters against Chelsea and another victory would significantly boost their chances of a top-four finish.

Hammers full-back Vladimir Coufal could well be a valuable source of fantasy points this weekend.

Coufal has four home assists in the Premier League this season, which represents the best in the division among defenders.

TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD

Dropped by England manager Gareth Southgate for the latest round of international fixtures, Trent Alexander-Arnold has responded in impressive fashion.

The dangerous full-back has been involved in three goals in Liverpool's last three fixtures (two assists, one goal) – as many as he managed in his previous 24 games in the competition.

With Liverpool unbeaten in 24 home matches against Newcastle United, Alexander-Arnold is sure to feature heavily in many fantasy sides this weekend.

JESSE LINGARD

Another player for Chelsea to be extremely wary of this weekend, Jesse Lingard has been in the form of his life since moving to West Ham on loan from Manchester United in January.

The attacking midfielder has been involved in 12 West Ham goals so far in the Premier League (nine goals, three assists) to become a key component in their battle to qualify for the Champions League.

Only Mick Quinn (Coventry City), Les Ferdinand (Newcastle United) and Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United) have had more goal involvements in their first 10 appearances for a club in the competition (all 13).

MASON GREENWOOD

Mason Greenwood has found form at an ideal time as he aims to be a part of Southgate's England squad for the rescheduled Euro 2020.

And fantasy football fans perhaps should be looking to make room for a player who has scored four goals across his most recent three top-flight appearances for Manchester United.

Not since Francis Jeffers in the year 2000 has a teenager managed to score in four consecutive Premier League games. Can Leeds United stop the Red Devils' own fox in the box?

WILFRIED ZAHA

Crystal Palace have beaten Leicester City eight times in the Premier League, earning more wins than they have achieved against any other side, while their four away victories against the Foxes is also a joint-high for them in the competition (also four at Everton).

Leicester are also a side who Eagles dangerman Wilfried Zaha has traditionally flourished against, so a trip to the King Power Stadium could be up his street on Monday.

The tricky forward has been involved in six goals in his last six appearances against Leicester (five goals, one assist). Palace won three of those games with Zaha scoring in each.

JAMIE VARDY

On the flip side, Leicester have their own reasons to be optimistic against Roy Hodgson's men.

Jamie Vardy's record against Palace is very favourable, with the experienced striker involved in six goals in his previous nine versus the Eagles (five goals, one assist).

David Moyes has urged West Ham to attack their dream of finishing in the Premier League top four, an achievement he feels would be his best as a manager.

West Ham are fourth in the Premier League ahead of hosting third-place Leicester City in a huge encounter on Sunday.

According to reports, Michail Antonio could miss the rest of the season and Moyes has confirmed the forward has a hamstring strain.

Declan Rice is also ruled out for West Ham, who face massive stakes in their eight-game run-in, which starts with the key clash against the Foxes.

Leicester were the last non 'big six' team to finish in the top four in 2016, ending an 11-year wait after Moyes was in charge of the previous team do it (Everton in 2005).

But Moyes thinks reaching the top four with West Ham would top that.

"I think it would be [even greater]," he said to Sky Sports.

"I'd been at Everton for three years by then so that would mean it would be a bigger achievement given we're already competing. 

"[European football] would not be something new for the club, but it would be new in the modern era of West Ham.

"I still feel the Premier League has an established order - there's a lot of teams knocking at the door to see if they can get in.

"A few of the big teams are worried about it because we see that in other situations and developments with talk of a new [breakaway] league.

"We are having a really good season at the moment, we are trying to stick with it and we are not hiding from the fact we believe we are outsiders. 

"But we also believe we have got a great opportunity so why do not we try to attack it full on?

"This time last year, we had to win games in order to stay in the Premier League so we're actually all feeling very light and not heavy.

"We'll try to take a few risks, try to go for it and see if we can win them. The aim is to try to finish around the top end.

"I think most people will not expect us to make Champions League, so I hope we can try to do something very similar to what Leicester did when they went on to win the league. 

"Nobody thought they could win it."

West Ham are winless in five home matches with Leicester (D2 L3), losing 2-1 last season.

Ahead of the game, Leicester boss Brendan Rodgers backed striker Jamie Vardy to emerge from a goalscoring slump that has seen him score just once in 17 matches.

"The team has still been winning," Rodgers said. "What's most important for Jamie is you have to continue to work, make runs and sometimes you just need that bit of luck.

"He has created a number of opportunities for us. We know his threat and he can score any time.

"Jamie has just been very unfortunate, between keepers making saves and blocks on the line and some chances that, maybe, he would have put away.

"He is always going to be there. He is such a threat, his sharpness and speed, he is such an important player for us."

West Ham are looking to record their first Premier League double over Leicester since the 1999-00 season under Harry Redknapp.

The Hammers have the second-best home record in the Premier League (28 points), while Leicester have the second-best away record so far this term (34 points). 

League leaders Manchester City are the team at the top in both categories.

Manchester City will be looking to stretch their record winning run to 20 matches when they welcome fellow in-form side West Ham to the Etihad Stadium in the Premier League this weekend.

Pep Guardiola's men are 10 points clear at the summit and two of their players feature among our Opta-fuelled fantasy picks, along with a couple of Everton men on the back of last week's long-awaited derby win at Liverpool.

Manchester United, Tottenham and Leicester City players are also selected ahead of games against Chelsea, Burnley and Arsenal respectively.

 

EDERSON

There are many factors behind the leaders' winning run - not least an incredible defensive record, with goalkeeper Ederson more than playing his part.

The Brazil international has kept 15 clean sheets from 24 Premier League games this term, averaging one every 1.6 matches.

Only two keepers to have played at least 10 times have averaged fewer games per clean sheet across an entire season - Chelsea's Petr Cech (24 in 35 apps in 2004-05) and former Manchester United stopper Edwin van der Sar (21 in 33 apps in 2008-09).

JOAO CANCELO

Simply keeping out the opposition is not enough in the life of a modern day full-back, best epitomised by Cancelo at Man City.

On top of helping City to that formidable defensive record, he has also created the most chances (34) from open play among fellow Premier League defenders this season.

Cancelo may only have set up two goals in the top flight this season, but he has the highest number of expected assists (4.28) among defenders, just ahead of Manchester United's Luke Shaw (4.04).

 

LUCAS DIGNE

Carlo Ancelotti was delighted with the news Digne had signed a new long-term deal with Everton this week and little wonder given the full-back's impact on the side.

No Premier League defender has more assists than the 27-year-old's six this season - level with West Ham's Aaron Cresswell and one more than Andy Robertson and Shaw.

Since Digne's debut for Everton in August 2018, only Liverpool pair Robertson and Trent Alexander-Arnold (28) have assisted more goals than the Frenchman (17).

GYLFI SIGURDSSON

There was a point when Sigurdsson's time at Everton appeared to be up not so long ago, but the creative midfielder has more than proved his worth to the side of late.

He was been involved in six Premier League goals in 23 appearances this term - four goals and two assists - which is one more than he managed in 35 games last season.

That is a tally he will be confident of building on this gameweek, as the Iceland international has only scored more Premier League goals against Chelsea (six) than he has versus opponents Southampton (five).

 

MARCUS RASHFORD

In the week he celebrates the five-year anniversary since scoring twice on his United debut, Rashford takes on his favourite opponents in Chelsea.

The United academy product has scored five times against the Blues in all competitions and registered a couple of assists.

Only against Leicester City has he found the net as many times, while only against Newcastle United and West Ham (both seven) has he been directly involved in more goals.

HARRY KANE

If Rashford enjoys playing against Chelsea, the same is true of Kane against Tottenham's next opponents Burnley.

The England skipper has been directly involved in 10 goals in nine Premier League appearances against the Clarets, finding the net seven times and laying on three assists.

Burnley's defenders will not look forward to coming up against Kane, with Riyad Mahrez the only player to score against them more often (eight times) in their Premier League history.

 

JAMIE VARDY

Vardy's scoring record against the division's traditional top four is well known by now, particularly when it comes to facing Arsenal.

The Leicester striker has scored 11 goals in 12 previous Premier League appearances against the Gunners, including a late winner in the reverse fixture.

Those 11 strikes place Vardy behind only Wayne Rooney for goals scored against Arsenal in the competition, the United legend netting 12 times against the London club in his career.

Leicester City scored three goals in the space of seven minutes to stun Liverpool as the Premier League champions slipped to a 3-1 defeat in Jurgen Klopp's 300th match in charge. 

Mohamed Salah's carefully placed finish gave the visitors a 67th-minute lead at the King Power Stadium, yet from a position of strength they suffered a dramatic collapse to slip to a third successive loss. 

James Maddison equalised with a free-kick from a tight angle – the strike was initially ruled out for offside prior to a VAR check – before a calamitous moment between Alisson, at fault for two goals in last Sunday's 4-1 loss to Manchester City, and debutant Ozan Kabak gifted Jamie Vardy his first goal of 2021. 

With Liverpool still reeling, Harvey Barnes wrapped up a first win for Brendan Rodgers over his former employers since the end of his Anfield reign – and moved his current club six points clear of them in the table. 

Leicester City striker Jamie Vardy will be out for "a few weeks" as he needs a hernia operation, manager Brendan Rodgers has revealed.

The 34-year-old has scored 11 goals in 18 Premier League appearances this season, with only Son Heung-min, Harry Kane and Mohamed Salah above him in the scoring charts.

Vardy has averaged a league goal approximately every 134 minutes, a rate that only six players can better this term, although he has not found the net in any of his past five appearances.

Rodgers is therefore confident Leicester's season will not be badly impacted by the loss of Vardy as they prepare for a run of matches that includes meetings with Everton, Leeds United, Wolves and Liverpool before the first leg of their Europa League last-32 tie with Slavia Prague.

"Jamie Vardy will be out for a few weeks," Rodgers said on Friday. "As you know, we've been managing him over this last number of months, and he's been absolutely fantastic.

"We have a window now that allows him to have a minor operation on his hernia and then he'll be back within a few weeks. He'll be out for that period.

"It's one that doesn't keep him [Vardy] out for too long, but it's just a repair in and round that hernia area. It's one we feel he can't really put it off much longer.

"We were hoping to do it a few weeks back, but this is a window where we can get it done and that will obviously leave him with a good part of the season where he can be really influential for us."

Leicester, who are two points behind league leaders Manchester United, travel to Brentford in the FA Cup fourth round on Sunday.

A familiar pairing helped Tottenham return to winning ways in the Premier League this weekend. 

Harry Kane and Son Heung-min were both on target as Jose Mourinho's side ended a four-match winless streak in the competition with a comfortable 3-0 triumph over Leeds United. 

Their rapport has been one of the defining stories of the season but, away from north London, several other games produced some interesting statistics.

With the help of Opta data, we take a look at some of the quirkiest stats from the weekend's action, with Leicester City's win at Newcastle United a source of a couple of fascinating facts.

 

Kane and Son combine again

Harry Kane and Son Heung-min's almost telepathic understanding was on show again in Tottenham's defeat of Leeds.

The South Korea international swept in Kane's pass to become the 18th Spurs player to score 100 goals for the club in all competitions on what was his 253rd appearance.

Kane has now assisted nine goals for Son in the Premier League, while the South Korean has laid on four for the England captain in the 2020-21 season – no two players have linked up more in a single season in the competition.

They have plenty of time left to leapfrog Alan Shearer and Chris Sutton, who combined 13 times during Blackburn Rovers' 1994-95 title-winning season. 

Evergreen Vardy keeps on going

Jamie Vardy might be 33 but the Leicester striker is showing no signs of slowing down. 

His assist for James Maddison's opener in the 2-1 win over Newcastle at the weekend means he has been directly involved in 98 Premier League goals since turning 30 (80 goals and 18 assists). 

He leapfrogged Paolo Di Canio to move joint-sixth with Manchester United icon Ryan Giggs in the all-time list for most Premier League goal involvements aged 30-plus. 

He is now within touching distance of Gianfranco Zola (101) and Shearer (102), with Ian Wright in third with 110 involvements. 

Chelsea boss Frank Lampard is second with 118, while Teddy Sheringham leads the way with 127 (77 goals and 50 assists).

Tierney waves tartan flag for Gunners

Arsenal do not have a rich lineage of Scottish players during the Premier League era, but left-back Kieran Tierney is doing his best to change that.

The former Celtic man became the first Scottish player to score an away Premier League goal for the Gunners in their thumping of West Brom and the first to do so in the top flight since Charlie Nicholas in March 1986. 

The 23-year-old cut inside from the left flank and curled a brilliant finish beyond Sam Johnstone to open the scoring, before then going on to tee up Alexandre Lacazette's second goal in the rout of Sam Allardyce's woeful Baggies.

Tierney – who has been tipped as a future Arsenal captain by boss Mikel Arteta – only needs one more goal to join Paul Dickov (three) as the Gunners' top-scoring Scottish player in the Premier League.

Carroll ends lengthy wait for Magpies goal

Newcastle tasted defeat against the Foxes but they could at least toast a return to the scoresheet after an almighty break for Andy Carroll. 

Only Wayne Rooney has had a longer gap between Premier League goals for the same club than Carroll, who netted for the first time of his second Magpies spell.

Carroll's goal was his first for Newcastle since he re-joined the club in 2019-20. The former Liverpool and West Ham forward had last netted for the Magpies on Boxing Day 2010, in a 3-1 defeat to Manchester City.

With a gap of 10 years and eight days between his strikes for Newcastle, Carroll is behind only Rooney for the largest stretch of time between two goals for the same club in the Premier League.

Rooney scored on the opening day of the 2017-18 season for Everton, 13 years and 121 days after his last goal for the Toffees in the 2003-04 season.

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