Leicester looked nailed on for a Champions League place, but their late-season lump is all too familiar to their manager, writes John Percy
Leicester City are three games from securing a Champions League return but, ahead of tonight's encounter with Sheffield United, it feels like the narrative has dramatically changed.
The spectacular capitulation at Bournemouth on Sunday has raised the spectre of this season ending on a sour note and, outside of the King Power Stadium, many are observing that the wheels are falling off Leicester's season.
In the 20 Premier League games since manager Brendan Rodgers signed a new contract on December 6, Leicester have picked up just 24 points. Rodgers admitted there was a sense of "shock and disbelief" after the 4-1 defeat at struggling Bournemouth, which was a glorious demonstration in the art of self-destruction.
Comparisons with the 2013-'14 season at Liverpool, when Rodgers's team collapsed in the final three games to lose the title, are inescapable. Yet the table shows that Leicester, in fourth, are still above Manchester United, Tottenham and Arsenal, and just four points behind Chelsea.
Jamie Vardy is on course for this season's Golden Boot and finishing in the top six, at the worst, would represent progress since Rodgers's arrival. But after being just eight points behind Liverpool on December 8, it would be a bitter disappointment to miss out now.
"If you'd have said to me when we were on a pre-season trip, that with three games to go, you'll be fighting for the Champions League, I would have bitten your hand off," said Rodgers. "There have been disappointments but I've got a real sense of perspective about how well this team has done. This is something that will make us stronger and better."
After their game against Sheffield United, Leicester face Tottenham on Sunday and Manchester United in a potentially pivotal game on the final day. For now, their destiny remains with them. Rodgers urgently needs a response to the defeat at Bournemouth, and will be acutely aware that securing a return to Champions League football holds the key to a brighter future.
If Leicester miss out on the top four, the rumours are that transfer funds will be limited for next season. Indeed, Rodgers -admitted before the restart that loan signings would be most likely. However, the club's transfer funds would be boosted by player sales and Ben Chilwell's future will be even more uncertain without top-level European football.
Chelsea and Manchester City both want the England left-back and Leicester will be vulnerable to offers.
Rodgers will miss out on a Champions League bonus, believed to be around £750,000, while it is also understood that player contracts have big financial uplifts if they qualify for next season's competition. "You cannot worry about where you finish, because that will be determined by how you play," said Rodgers. "If you reach out for the finish line too soon, you may not get there."
Leicester's top-four mission has suffered from misfortune at a damaging time, with Ricardo Pereira out for the season and James Maddison (hip) and Chilwell (heel) doubtful for tonight.
Caglar Soyuncu's sending off at Bournemouth means he will miss the rest of the season, while Kasper Schmeichel, and Jonny Evans both committed costly mistakes at the Vitality Stadium.
Yet Rodgers cannot escape scrutiny, and nor would he expect to.
The substitution of Kelechi Iheanacho at half-time in the Bournemouth defeat was particularly strange, also allegedly confusing the other players. What was viewed as tactical ingenuity earlier in the season is now seen as unnecessary tinkering. Earlier in the campaign, Rodgers would have been more ruthless and implored Leicester to add a second goal. The 9-0 thrashing of Southampton in October is proof of that.
Leicester's approach since Project Restart is more ponderous and laboured, and their shot conversion rate is dramatically down.
Victory over Sheffield United will require a serious improvement in performance, but would certainly ease the tension.
After so many outstanding performances, and a club record eight successive wins at this level, Leicester do not deserve to be remembered for a late meltdown.
Rodgers said: "Wherever we finish after 38 games is where we deserve to finish." (© Daily Telegraph)
Leicester City v Sheffield United, Live, Sky One, 6pm.
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