Having come agonisingly close to Champions League qualification in both the 2019/20 and 2020/21 seasons, could Leicester City have missed the boat when it comes to European qualification?
When Tottenham Hotspur exceeded expectations by challenging for the Premier League title in 2015/16, it was tempting to conclude that this was just the start of something special and, in some ways, it was. Spurs continued to progress under Mauricio Pochettino and reached the Champions League final in 2019.
Yet despite a runners-up finish in 2016/17, Tottenham never got as close to winning the league as they did in Pochettino’s second season at the club. In hindsight, that title tilt of 2015/16 looks like a missed opportunity as much as a year of overachievement.
Leicester City, the unlikely champions in the season Spurs came close, might be beginning to feel like the shoe is on the other foot when it comes to the Champions League.
In both 2019/20 and 2020/21 the Foxes finished fifth in the Premier League. Relative to their resources that was a fine achievement. Leicester may have fallen out of the top four in the closing weeks of both campaigns but there was plenty to celebrate in being the best of the rest, particularly as they also won the FA Cup last term. Moreover there was little to suggest Leicester City would cease being Champions League challengers in the years to come.
Yet after 12 games of the current campaign Leicester fans are starting to wonder if they might have missed the Champions League boat. Brendan Rodgers’s side are already eight points adrift of the top four having won just four games so far. Arsenal are a stronger team than last season. Tottenham will expect to kick on under Antonio Conte. West Ham United do not look like one-season wonders. The Champions League suddenly seems a long way away for Leicester City.
The Foxes have yet to get going this year. They won two of their first three games, beating Wolverhampton Wanderers and Norwich City, but were not particularly convincing in either. They were the better team in a 2-2 draw with Burnley before being outplayed by Crystal Palace in another 2-2 draw the following week. Back-to-back victories over Brentford and Manchester United in October preceded the present run of three games without a win.
Problems abound. Leicester have been shaky defensively all season, from open play as well as set-pieces. Saturday’s 3-0 defeat by Chelsea means they have conceded 21 goals in their first 12 games, the joint-third worst tally in the division.
Wesley Fofana’s assuredness is sorely missed in the heart of the backline. James Justin is another big loss to injury, while Jannik Vestergaard began the season poorly following his move from Southampton. Neither Jonny Evans nor Caglar Soyuncu, who formed a solid partnership previously, has been on top form.
Leicester are still scoring goals, although Jamie Vardy has been responsible for 44 percent of them. Yet Rodgers has not settled on a first-choice attack. Kelechi Iheanacho’s performances over the last couple of years make him a worthy candidate to start alongside Vardy but playing two up front often leads to a lack of width and makes it difficult to get the likes of Harvey Barnes and Ademola Lookman into the side. James Maddison is another who has been in and out of the team, while Youri Tielemans is one of the more recent additions to the treatment table.
In Rodgers’s first two full seasons at the King Power Stadium, Leicester played with purpose and clarity. That has now been lost, as the former Liverpool chops and changes in search of the right formula. Some believe Rodgers himself has been distracted by the rumours which suggest he is a candidate to be the next Manchester United manager.
It is not too late for Leicester City to climb up the table and challenge for the European places, but the Champions League will probably be beyond them this season. Those back-to-back fifth-place finishes might be as good as it gets under Rodgers.
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