I have to pinch myself every time I remember that Leicester City winning the 2015-16 Premier League title actually did happen. It still seems like a dream, and I’m not a Foxes fan! It was quite unbelievable and forever will be, but unfortunately it does not hide the club’s struggles this season.
Claudio Ranieri’s team sit 16th in the Premier League table, just two points above the relegation zone. It is incredibly tight at the bottom of the division, with only two points separating Sunderland in 20th and Middlesbrough in 15th, at the time of writing. There is then a five point jump to Bournemouth in 14th. There is no doubt about it; the reigning Premier League champions are in an incredibly tough battle to stay in the division.
It’s vitally important that every player in the squad realises this. They can’t ignore their current predicament and continue to bask in last season’s glory, as that could be their Achilles heel. I interviewed Kevin Doyle in the summer for The Tilehurst End, and the Irishman said that Reading’s 2007-08 squad “didn’t realise” they were in a relegation battle until it was too late. The previous campaign they had finished 8th and were on top of the world. Leicester are in danger of suffering the same fate if they don’t take a moment to recognise that there is a very real possibility that they could be playing Championship football next season.
Should Claudio Ranieri be sacked? The Italian insists that his squad are still behind him, but I’m not so sure. The players look devoid of confidence and Ranieri looks powerless and sometimes even clueless on the touchline. However, on Tuesday, the club issued a statement making “absolutely clear its unwavering support” for him. As this is the case, then the 65 year needs to change something, with his team winning just one league game in nine. It’s down to the players too. Wes Morgan needs to galvanise a defence that has conceded 10 goals in four league games. There’s an N’Golo Kante shaped hole in the midfield that looks as though it will never be filled – either by his supposed replacement Nampalys Mendy or January signing Wilfred Ndidi. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy look as though they can’t be bothered, the former especially, which is a far cry from the form that led to the pair earning Balon d’Or nominations and rumours linking them to Europe’s elite. They’ve showed that they’ve got the quality, and now more than ever they need to start producing again and stop thinking about the ‘what ifs’ if they had indeed departed for bigger things in the summer.
It is very easy to forget that the Foxes are still in the Champions League, and have a two-legged tie against Sevilla coming up in the next month. This will divert their attentions for at least that period of time if not longer if they beat the Spanish side, as European football appeared to be their rest-bite earlier in the campaign. They’re also still in the FA Cup – Middlesbrough are the only other team in the bottom six also remaining in the competition. It is often discussed how fixture congestion can hinder teams at the top of the Premier League, but it may well severely hurt Leicester at the bottom.
Leicester’s next four league fixtures could be absolutely critical. They face two of their relegation rivals, Swansea City (away) and Hull City (home), both of whom are in good form following a change in manager. They also meet two of the top five, Liverpool (home) and Arsenal (away), the only two teams to defeat them in the league last season. In contrast, 11 different teams have already taken three points off the Champions this season. Six points against Hull and Swansea would be a massive boost for Ranieri’s side, but at this moment in time it is hard to see that happening.
The King Power Stadium needs to become a fortress again. They lost just once at home in the league in 2015-16, whilst for the remainder of this campaign they have the aforementioned clashes with Hull and Liverpool at home, as well as fellow strugglers Sunderland, title challengers Tottenham and a final day fixture against Bournemouth – and yes it could well go down to the final day. In their miraculous escape from relegation in 2014-15, Leicester lost just one of their final seven home league games, winning five. How many home league games do have left this season? That’s right, seven.
It is that great escape from two years ago that Leicester need to take inspiration from, not 2015-16’s title win. Don’t get me wrong, last season was historic and will never be beaten, but it was an anomaly, when every one of the ‘big’ teams had an uncharacteristic off season. Although it will never be forgotten, it needs to be put to the back of the players’ minds. It is in a relegation battle that team spirit, getting unexpected results and putting together a good run of form counts the most, and if Leicester can’t do that, and currently it does not look as though they can, then I fear that they will become only the second English top-flight champions in history to be relegated the following year.