Even nine months on, Leicester City’s Premier League triumph still seems scarcely believable. Defying mammoth odds of 5000/1, the Foxes sent shockwaves through world football by pulling off arguably the greatest upset in sporting history. From relegation favourites at the start of the campaign, Claudio Ranieri’s heroes embarked upon a journey that has given each of them immortal status. For masterminding their success, Ranieri, whose appointment was largely derided, won the inaugural Best FIFA Football Coach award.
But the honeymoon is well and truly over. Rewind 12 months and Leicester were top of the table after thrashing Manchester City at the Etihad Stadium. It was the moment they went from imposters to genuine challengers. Now, however, they are down in 16th position, one point above the drop-zone. The statistics make for alarming reading. Compared with this stage last season, Leicester have scored 20 fewer goals and conceded 15 more. As a result, they have 29 fewer points. Relegation is becoming an increasingly likely scenario. They have suffered four successive defeats and, such is the magnitude of their problem that they haven’t even scored a league goal in 2017.
Few expected Leicester to mount a strong title defence, but the speed at which their empire has crumbled has shocked everyone. So what has gone so spectacularly wrong? The ramifications of N’Golo Kante’s departure cannot be overstated. Leicester recouped £32 million from Chelsea for his sale, a figure that now seems derisory. The diminutive Frenchman was the heartbeat of the side and performed the role of two players, shielding the defence with his boundless energy and expert tackling while often acting as source of attacking moves.
Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, an unstoppable partnership last season, are pale imitations of their former selves. Kante’s absence has been keenly felt here. Vardy, who scored 24 Premier League goals last season before snubbing a potential switch to Arsenal, hasn’t found the net since his hat-trick against Manchester City on December 10, while Mahrez looks uninterested despite having signed a new contract last summer. Another factor is the clampdown on shirt-pulling in the penalty area. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth used their physicality to their advantage last season, but this new directive has neutralised them.
Ranieri has spent more than £70 million in the transfer market since that memorable day at the King Power Stadium when he lifted the Premier League trophy, but it has not been enough to arrest their slide. This week, amid increasing speculation in the media about his future, the Italian received a ‘dreaded’ vote of confidence from the club’s owners. Often it is the precursor to the sack, but this time his very public backing appears to be genuine. And that is only right.
Any suggestion that Ranieri’s position might be in jeopardy is frankly laughable. For what he has accomplished, he deserves the freedom of the city. Remember, despite their problems domestically, Ranieri has managed to guide little old Leicester to the knockout stages of the Champions League. This was the priority at the start of the campaign and it has provided supporters with another series of treasured moments. Leicester’s season in the sun will never be forgotten. Even if relegation does transpire, Ranieri’s legacy is assured – and so should be his job.