Despite sitting pretty in 3rd place, it is widely assumed that the carriage Leicester are riding will turn back into a pumpkin drawn by talking mice. A question of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’ in the papers—and fans of the club are left indignant. Why shouldn’t they be able to win the title, or finish in the top 4? FLIP Sports predicts what may be in store for the surprise package of the season.
In the short term, Leicester face some daunting fixtures: Man Utd (H), Swansea (A), Chelsea (H), Everton (A), Liverpool (A) and Man City (H)—all before the end of December. This kind of run would be challenging for any club in the league and the Foxes will have their work cut out. If Leicester manage to grab at least 9 points from this run they would probably be satisfied. However, several clubs below them in the table have easier stretches. Tottenham, Manchester United and Southampton all have kinder fixtures and could all conceivably be above Leicester before Santa Claus does the rounds.
Compounding the problem of a heavy winter schedule is Leicester’s reliance on key players, namely Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. The two have 19 league goals between them, 76% of all Leicester’s goals this season. No one else in the squad has more than one. This is not to belittle the contribution of the rest of the team who give their all on the field—but the fitness of Mahrez and Vardy being so vital is an untenable state of affairs. And if the two make it through the winter, they may not have enough left in the tank to make a significant contribution in the last third of the season. If the Foxes want to stay buoyant they may have to buy a first team quality player in January.
In connection with goals, Leicester’s goal difference isn’t good enough at the moment—with a GD of 5, theirs is the lowest of the top 7 clubs in the table. They’ve been outscoring opponents to win games but leaking at the back—if they can’t improve the defence then when the goals dry up Leicester will start to lose games. To put it in perspective, no club outside the bottom 5 has conceded more goals. It will come back to bite Leicester eventually. When you consider that they are yet to play Man City, Man Utd, Chelsea and Liverpool this season, the Foxes may be conceding more goals than they’d like—and this time it may cost them. Ritchie De Laet has been Leicester’s finest defensive performer so far, but he’s about to come up against the likes of Raheem Sterling, Anthony Martial, Coutinho and Eden Hazard. This would be a stern challenge for any player in the world.
Ranieri has surprised many observers this season. When he was hired it was accompanied by scepticism and even a little disappointment from a fanbase who respected Nigel Pearson’s successful escape act. Claudio Ranieri was a kind of joke, the ‘tinkerman’ who couldn’t leave well enough alone and hadn’t had a decent spell at a club for a long time. The veteran Italian has been the managerial appointment of the year so far, a revelation in the dugout for Leicester. Ranieri’s Foxes win games in swashbuckling style. Should they finish with a European place, the Tinkerman will be a nailed on candidate for Manager of the Year.
In the longer term Leicester face the insidious challenge of players being poached by bigger teams. Jamie Vardy has been scoring goals like this and this for weeks and fans have rapturously sung his name—but it’s also garnered the attention of Liverpool, Tottenham and even Real bloody Madrid. At 29 Vardy has one major move left in his career if he wants it—and if the Madridistas come knocking, does anyone seriously think he’d refuse? Likewise, Mahrez has been linked with Barcelona and Manchester United—both of whom might make a January push to sign him. If it can happen to Southampton and Borussia Dortmund it can certainly happen to Leicester, and the gossip columns will begin in earnest very soon. At the very least, it can very easily unsettle a player.
Leicester home games are seen by about 32,000 loyal fans and while the atmosphere has been amazing this season their ambition will always be limited by their location. Their matchday revenue cannot possibly match many of their Premier League opposition—and as nice as parts of Leicester are, the town cannot match the glamour and style of Manchester and London. It’s a bleak and unromantic picture of football in England, but it’s the truth—London clubs will always have a natural advantage in gate receipts and probably choice of players willing to move, too.
That’s why Leicester have to go for it this time—a chance like this comes around once in a blue moon. They may never get this close to the top again and should play as if that’s the case. The Foxes must staunchly resist any overtures this January window—regardless of figures—and add to the squad. A good player wouldn’t just share the load on Vardy and Mahrez, it would send the message to the team and the league alike that Leicester mean business this year…and aren’t about to be stopped by the press underrating them so often. The Foxes have been a delight for neutrals and it is so refreshing to be talking about a new team in the mix near the summit.