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Leicester face tough choices as losses compile
Leicester City have played exactly one hundred Premier League fixtures since their promotion in 2014, offering a moment for the club to look back upon their monumental achievements of the past two years and cherish their fortunes.
Then move on.
Such were the odds of Leicester’s title triumph, it could take another hundred years for them to build an equivalent team. Yet Leicester City are slipping back down the Premier League table as quickly as they ascended it last year and Claudio Ranieri only has a few months to turn the ship around. Their title triumph, it seems, has become a paralyzing burden that has rendered them rudderless in the face of the increasingly daunting prospect of relegation.
A woeful 3-0 defeat to Manchester United, whom they drew twice last season on the road to glory, has seen Leicester’s buffer to the relegation zone fall to but a single point with twelve games to go. Speaking after the game, goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel summarized their disappointment, saying: “For the first 40 minutes we played OK but after that it was unacceptable. It is not good enough and sums our season up at the moment.
“Let’s not talk about last season. It’s gone. There are a lot of factors that go into it but this season has not been good right from the start.
“We are a group of players low on confidence but not low on fight. It is not a comfortable situation. It has been terrible, embarrassing. It is time for each one of us – from the top to the bottom of this club – to stand up and be counted. If we don’t, we will be relegated.”
The absurdity of relegation inspires the same irrational sense of inevitability that made them unstoppable last season, a psychological trap which Leicester are struggling to avoid. Ranieri, who insisted on maintaining focus on their goal of forty-points last year, even whilst sitting atop the table, should recognize the importance of tunnel vision more than anyone.
Yet he seems out of ideas at the moment, a stark contrast from the lovable, eccentric figure he cut last season. Where Leicester were sharp and incisive in 2016, they’re languid this year. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, once so creative and dangerous on the ball, can’t get rid of possession soon enough. They’ve shared only eight goals so far this season, three of them from the penalty spot.
Of course, it’s rather unfair to compare them to last season, but such is the liability of their unique title defense.
Speaking of title defenses, Chelsea were equally dreadful last season, marred by controversy and in-fighting. However, they sacked Jose Mourinho over the holidays and have been resurrected this season by Antonio Conte.
Leicester, on the other hand, have thus far been unwilling to tear apart their dream team, denying Leonardo Ulloa a transfer request in January. Ranieri, an increasingly isolated figure on the touchline, presents Leicester’s hierarchy a choice: to honor the romantic spirit that led them to the title, stick with the Italian and risk relegation, or succumb to the ruthless corporate interests of the Premier League and cut their fairy-tale short. They could always sack Ranieri and still suffer relegation in a worst-case scenario, but at some point it’s a risk that presumably outweighs the prospect of suffering passively.
Of course, it’s unlikely the club will take any decisive action so long as Leicester are still in the Champions League, with a Round of 16 tie against Sevilla later this month that puts them in the ironic situation of being ranked as high in Europe as they are in England. It’s yet another twist in the most unforgettable of journeys for the club, albeit somewhat conflicting for their desperate need of stability in the league.
For after some of the most incredible, tumultuous hundred games in the Premier League, Leicester can only hope that they survive another twelve.
Homepage photo credit: Matt Neale from UK [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons