High-flying Leicester City wary of vertigo as momentum stalls ahead of FA Cup clash with Birmingham
With striker Vardy struggling for goals and team form grinding to a halt, the 2016 title winners are trying to rediscover the form that took them to third in the Premier League
Over a thousand miles south of the English midlands, in Rome, they talk of ‘doing a Leicester’. A similar phrase has been heard in East Germany.
Surprise candidates for any league title, as Lazio are in Italy and RB Leipzig aspire to be in the Bundesliga, tend to cite the club who made the impossible achievable as inspiration.
Leicester City’s 2016 Premier League title will be elite football’s outstanding outlier triumph for many years yet. But the truly lasting legacy may be their defiance of the brutal law of gravity that usually applies to one-off, upstart champions.
Leicester finished a lowly 12th the year after their coup. They were ninth in 2018 and in 2019, which looked about par for a well-run but provincial Premier League club.
Turns out they are stronger than that. To sit third in the table, eight points clear of fifth, with 10 matches to go in the current season is to show that the spirit of four years ago is maintained and that the dividends of the 2016 success have been wisely channeled.
Leicester remain wary, though, of vertigo. As they chase a place in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup tonight, against Birmingham City, their momentum has slowed. Last Friday’s defeat at Norwich City extended their run of matches without a win to five.
“We have to go back to the basics, and bring our intensity back,” says Brendan Rodgers, the club’s fourth different manager since Claudio Ranieri oversaw the remarkable Premier League title, and just embarking on his second year in charge.
The uplift under Rodgers has been striking, much of the football dazzling; the slump since late January is a concern and Rodgers acknowledged some of his team-talks have taken on a hard edge. “This is elite sport. You can’t dance around the truth. You have to be harsh.”
One clear truth is that the club’s most potent forward, Jamie Vardy, has lost impact since the turn of year.
He missed the 1-0 defeat at Norwich with a calf problem and will not be rushed back against Birmingham but Rodgers hopes Vardy, 33, will be passed fit to face Aston Villa in the Premier League on Monday.
The former Swansea, Liverpool and Celtic manager will also be hoping that a sequence of nine games without a goal, Vardy’s most barren form for three years, can come to an end.
A pair of derbies ought to raise the pulse. Birmingham are the midlands’ strugglers at the moment, 15th in the Championship, but this is a heartland of English football where local rivalries still have a snarl about them. Leicester, the miracle champions of four seasons back, have become a prized local scalp.
Nor are they quite such lordly masters of the midlands as they were. The region has revived somewhat on the coattails of Leicester’s 2016 triumph.
Villa, who finished rock bottom of the Premier League when Leicester were champions, were promoted back up from the second tier last May and although they face a battle to remain in the Premier League, they were in a League Cup final, defeated 2-1 by Manchester City, on Sunday.
Wolverhampton Wanderers, from just west of Birmingham, will next Thursday contest a place in the last eight of the Europa League, the furthest the club have gone in Europe for 48 years.
West Bromwich Albion, meanwhile, have a title in their sights: they are top of the Championship. Even if Leicester hold on to third place in the Premier League, a distinguished and lucrative bronze medal, they may have to hear some loud bragging about medals of other colours, from different competitions, around the neighbourhood.
A challenging summer awaits, too. The fluency and zest of their football under Rodgers in the period up until Christmas have made players like Ben Chilwell, the attacking left-back, and James Maddison, the 23-year-old playmaker, transfer targets.
Wilfried Ndidi, the commanding central midfielder, is admired elsewhere. Leicester will also be seeking a long-term successor to Vardy, an expensive task.
Rodgers acknowledges Leicester’s reliance on senior players, some of them, such as Kasper Schmeichel and Vardy, veterans of the title-winning season.
“We can make lots of excuses in terms of we’re a team who needs our best players to be available,” he said of recent poor form. “But this last block of games is about mentality. We have shown our technical and tactical qualities over the course of the season. We have shown our physicality. It’s now about bringing the intensity back, which is my responsibility.”
Updated: March 3, 2020 05:10 PM