It was a much-altered Christmas for the miracle makersFriday, January 6, 2017
For Leicester, what a difference a year makes
Last Christmas, Leicester City was half-way to a miracle, perched atop the Premier League standings, but it headed into this festive season in a more familiar place — three points above the relegation zone with their fans left wondering where the magic has gone. “Surely they can’t?” was the question heard across football 12 months ago as a club that had narrowly escaped relegation the previous season and which had been playing in the third tier League just seven years earlier produced win after win. The same question is being asked again — surely the club which became the story of the year in international football, can’t follow up the joy of its title-winning campaign with the misery of being the first title holder to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938?
It is unlikely. Describing Leicester as a “title defender” this season was never a truly apt phrase given few outside of the Foxes’ most diehard fans could imagine a repeat performance, or anything close to it, but there are surely three worse teams than Leicester City this season in the Premier League and there is enough quality at Manager Claudio Ranieri’s disposal to secure a safe mid-table finish.
“Of course we felt better last season but for that reason I have told (the players) that it is much better to forget last season. We did a good job, won the title but now we are in this problem and now we have to fight with this problem.” Ranieri said recently when reminded of his team’s position a year ago.
The “problem” has come about due to defeats to the likes of Hull City, Sunderland, Watford, West Bromwich Albion and Bournemouth — the kind of games relegation candidates lose. But there have also been reminders of the magic that Ranieri and his team created last year. The 4-2 crushing of Manchester City on December 10 was a clear sign that all is not lost. For those 90 minutes, Leicester ripped City apart with its fast counter-attacks, tenacious battling in midfield and clinical finishing from striker Jamie Vardy, who had gone 16 games, in all competitions, without a goal, but put a hat-trick past Pep Guardiola’s team.
It felt like a turning-point in a season that has been such a struggle but it was followed up with defeat to Bournemouth. Most observers expected to see the title-winning team dissolve as the big clubs came in with offers for their top players and Vardy’s 24 goals last season surely put him top of the list. The very fact that Vardy remains a Leicester player and that the off-season did not see an exodus from the East Midlands has been the main post-championship positive for the club. Indeed Arsenal triggered a release clause in Vardy’s contract with a £20-million offer but the striker resisted the temptation to move and of the key members of the title-winning squad, only French midfielder N’Golo Kante left, joining Chelsea.
Kante has been sorely missed but it would be far too simplistic to blame Leicester’s poor start this season solely on the loss of their midfield enforcer. One key element has been that teams now approach Leicester in a different way, in particular, setting themselves up to stifle the creativity of French-born, Algerian international midfielder Riyad Mahrez and cut off his service to Vardy.
Last year Leicester were fortunate to have few injuries and few players suffering losses of form meaning Ranieri was able to field a consistent line-up and this year he has needed to shuffle his pack more often, leading to an inevitable loss in that intense familiarity among the eleven on the field.
Adding to that change, is the fact that Leicester are fighting on two fronts this year, given their involvement in the Champions League. But while European commitments undoubtedly take a toll on a team, increasing their workload and chances of injuries, the continent has provided the main source of celebration for Leicester fans this season.
In an era where wealth and success are concentrated among a small group of clubs in Europe, Leicester were the glorious exception, winning without the millions. For those reasons, as they try to prolong their European adventure and steer clear of domestic trouble in 2017, they will do so with the well wishes of many with no connection to their club but who simply don’t want to see the miracle turn sour.