Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 September 2020

Leicester City's collapse and injury crisis leave top four hopes hanging by a thread

At the start of the season, the Foxes would have taken top-six finish, but after squandering a 14-point cushion, the context has changed

It was February 1, just over three months from the end of a normal season. Leicester City and Chelsea shared four goals in an entertaining draw. The gap stayed the same and it was still gargantuan.

Leicester were still eight points clear of Chelsea and 14 ahead of the three teams level in fifth, Manchester United, Wolves and Tottenham Hotspur, with 14 games to go.

It was closed in 13 matches. Such preliminary plans as Leicester may have devised for Barcelona and Bayern Munich may never be needed. Their fixture list could instead feature Zorya Luhansk, Desna Chernihiv and SønderjyskE in next season’s Europa League.

Rewind a year and that would have seemed an achievement. Leicester have a solitary top-four finish in the top flight since 1963. They had lost more league games than they won in each of the three seasons since winning the title. “It’s still been a really good season,” insisted manager Brendan Rodgers, but the context makes it a collapse.

He tried to draw the distinction that Leicester want to be in the Champions League but United need to be. But Leicester were overhauled by the resurgent Reds on Wednesday, need to beat them on Sunday and are such outsiders that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer is having to guard against complacency. “It’s not job done,” he warned on Friday.

Leicester have 14 points from 13 games. “From January or February, the consistency hasn’t been there,” Rodgers said. He requires victory on Sunday but only has one win against top-half opponents since early November and that was a Sheffield United team roundly tipped for relegation last summer. Leicester have two points against the current top seven since September.

The feeling for a while was that they were limping over the line, but the numbers of the walking wounded have mounted. “We’ve been really unfortunate that we have lost some of the best players in the league,” lamented Rodgers.

Leicester face United without the injured James Maddison, Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell. Second-string full-backs, in the rookies James Justin and Luke Thomas, will be charged with stopping Marcus Rashford and Mason Greenwood.

This seemed a chance to demonstrate Leicester’s savviness. They banked £85 million (Dh399m) for Harry Maguire and if the England international has made such an impact at Old Trafford that he became United captain in his debut year, Leicester still appeared to have got the better part of the deal.

They had an internal replacement in Caglar Soyuncu. Select a team for the first half of the season and there was a case for putting the Turk alongside Virgil van Dijk at the heart of the defence. But his form declined and his campaign came to a premature and undignified conclusion when he was sent off for kicking Callum Wilson in the net at Bournemouth. The old warhorse Wes Morgan will play instead.

Leicester’s second-half implosion at Bournemouth, conceding four goals in 21 minutes, felt symbolic of a season. It also highlighted questions about the temperament of a manager with undeniable coaching skills.

Rodgers is more measured and less cocksure than he was when in charge of Liverpool, but he is no stranger to end-of-season capitulations: ‘Crystanbul,’ when title-chasing Liverpool lost a 3-0 lead in nine minutes at Selhurst Park the week after Steven Gerrard’s infamous slip against Chelsea, came in 2014, a 6-1 thrashing at Stoke 12 months later.

He has won trophies with Celtic but arguably a Rodgers team has not peaked at the end of the season when it mattered since Swansea beat Reading at Wembley to secure promotion in 2011. That was a play-off final. This is one by another name, but the evidence of recent weeks is that Leicester are underdogs.

Updated: July 25, 2020 02:49 PM

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