Leicester fairytale lurches into nightmare
The urgent tone in Kasper Schmeichel’s voice said everything about the fate that has befallen Leicester City, fairytale Premier League champions become shock relegation candidates.
“We’re the reigning champions and quite frankly it’s been terrible. It’s been embarrassing,” the Danish goalkeeper told a television reporter after Leicester’s 3-0 defeat at home to Manchester United on Sunday.
“It’s time for every single one of us, right from the top to the bottom of this club, to stand up and be counted because if we don’t, we’re going to end up getting relegated.”
A year on from a stunning 3-1 win at Manchester City that sent them five points clear at the league summit, the loss to United left Claudio Ranieri’s men a solitary point above the relegation zone.
Just nine months after the dizzy climax to their 5,000-1 title triumph, Leicester face the prospect of becoming England’s first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938.
Beaten only three times last season, they have lost 13 times already this term — losing their last four league games without scoring a goal — and are still to win a single game away from home.
“Last season was a freak, so this is what you’d expect from Leicester: fighting relegation,” said former Liverpool defender turned Sky Sports pundit Jamie Carragher.
“They have got to do something before the end of the season because one of the great sporting stories of all-time could become a story for all the wrong reasons.”
Leicester’s woes are embodied by the dismal form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the rough-cut attacking stars whose goals and assists catapulted the Foxes to the title last May.
Leicester’s top scorer in 2015-16 with 24 goals, Vardy has found the net only five times since the start of the campaign.
Mahrez won a glut of individual awards after scoring 17 goals and supplying 11 assists last term, but the Algeria winger has scored only three times and created just two goals since the start of the season.
– Tactical tinkering –
One-man midfield N’Golo Kante, Leicester’s other stand-out player last season, was the only departure during the close season and the club have failed to plug the hole created by his move to current leaders Chelsea.
“(Robert) Huth and (Wes) Morgan without Kante in front of them are like Huth and Morgan,” Leicester old boy Gary Lineker tweeted sardonically as United’s forwards gave Leicester’s centre-backs the runaround on Sunday.
Injury has hampered Nampalys Mendy since he signed from Nice and with Daniel Amartey an unconvincing stop-gap, Leicester splashed out £15 million ($18.7 million, 17.4 million euros) to sign Wilfred Ndidi last month.
Leicester lost head of recruitment Steve Walsh to Everton after last season’s triumph and their transfer activity since has been patchy.
Islam Slimani, a club-record £30 million acquisition from Sporting Lisbon, has been a useful addition, his six goals to date including winners against Porto and West Ham United.
But Ahmed Musa has not convinced, Mendy has barely played, Ron-Robert Zieler has looked a less than capable deputy for Schmeichel and Luis Hernandez lasted just half a season before being sold to Malaga.
Ranieri’s tactical tinkering has also come under the spotlight.
Leicester stuck with a tried and tested 4-4-2 system throughout last season, but the Italian’s attempts to broaden his players’ horizons this term have produced some confused performances.
Reports emerged last week that Ranieri is facing squad unrest over his tactics and selection decisions and he is now the British bookmakers’ favourite to be the next Premier League manager to lose his job.
Leicester face a potentially defining run of fixtures, with Wednesday’s FA Cup replay at home to east Midlands rivals Derby County followed by a trip to fellow strugglers Swansea City.
They will then visit Sevilla for the club’s first ever Champions League knockout game, a reminder of glories past that are rapidly retreating into memory.