It was never going to be an easy title defence for Leicester City after last season’s dream run. The Foxes defied all odds to go from sureshot relegation candidates at the start of the 2015/16 campaign to lifting the trophy in May. In all honesty, it was nothing short of a fairy tale. This season, Claudio Ranieri’s men have realised that fairy tales don’t happen twice.
With midfield powerhouse N’Golo Kante heading over to Chelsea, and Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez not being in the form they were in last season, Leicester have found it very tough. With 7 games played, they have 8 points and are placed 12th in the table. Of course, their fixtures haven’t been the easiest, with Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United all facing them early on. But the 4-1 thrashings against both the Reds and the Red Devils prove that things are very different to what they were last season. Also, the opening day shock defeat away at Hull City proved that the onus is very much on them this time around to force the issue against the smaller clubs.
Keeping their feet on the ground
Before the season started, Ranieri made it clear that Leicester’s objective was once again to escape relegation.
“The fundamental concept is to start from scratch,” he said in an interview to La Gazzetta dello Sport back in July. Continuing on, Ranieri specified:
“We’ve won the title and it was beautiful and fantastic, it was maybe an unrepeatable achievement, but now we turn the page. If at the start of last season the bookmakers had us down as 5000-1 shots, then this time we start at 6000-1. Our objective to start the season with is to reach 40 points and stay up. Then, once we’ve reached that objective, we can raise the bar: finish in the top 10, [qualify for] the Europa League, a place in the Champions League. And maybe we can win one of the five trophies will be challenging for: Community Shield, Premier League, FA Cup, League Cup and Champions League. That is our running order, step by step.”
Leicester were 5000/1 to winning the last season. This season, despite what their manager opined, they were 80/1 at the start of the campaign. They were also 14/1 to go down into the Championship.
By doing the impossible last season, Leicester also qualified for the UEFA Champions League for the very first time. They’ve done admirably well so far, beating both Club Brugge and FC Porto in their opening two games and finding themselves on the cusp of the knockout rounds. There is no doubt though, that these games do provide a distraction to their job back at home. The games will start coming thick after the international break this week, and things don’t get any easier for the champions as they travel to Stamford Bridge to take on Chelsea.
After that, they face Crystal Palace, West Bromwich Albion, Watford and Middlesbrough in 4 of their next 5 games, with 3 of them at home. It is imperative that Leicester try and get maximum points here. Teams are approaching games against them very differently, and they must deal with the pressure of expectation that comes with being defending champions. However, picking up points at regular intervals is a must if they don’t want to get sucked into a battle to avoid the bottom 3. Realistically, finishing in the top 7 and qualifying for the Europa League next season is a target Ranieri should be looking at achieving.
There is no need for the alarm bells to start ringing just yet, as there haven’t been too many cracks appearing that suggest a calamity. While successfully defending their crown is out of the question, having a steady and solid season with a top-half finish is still very much on the agenda for Leicester. If they are able to qualify for the knockout rounds of the Champions League as well, it will be an incredible achievement.
But they must be careful not to succumb to too many defeats in the Premier League early on. They were absolutely dire against Man United in the first half and were given a real footballing lesson by Jose Mourinho’s men. Other sides are likely to be less clinical, but that doesn’t mean that Leicester can afford them the opportunity to get the better of them. This side was build on graft, hard work, organisation and character last season and Ranieri must make sure that these qualities stick with the players in times of hardship.