With 13 Premier League matches remaining, the burning question for Leicester will be impossible to escape: can they last the distance this time?
For the second successive season, a place in the Champions League is tantalisingly in sight and Brendan Rodgers faces Arsenal today with his Leicester team threatening to replace their opponents in the ‘Big Six’.
Leicester have been in the top four since September 2019 and have beaten Manchester City, Liverpool, Chelsea, Tottenham and Arsenal this season.
Rodgers completed two years in charge on Friday and his reputation is high at this level, operating at a club on an upward trajectory on and off the field. Yet the second half of last year’s truncated campaign, when they won only four league games after New Year’s Day, continues to raise the prospect of another heroic failure.
The dismal exit from the Europa League to Slavia Prague on Thursday has already sparked fears among Leicester fans that it could spill over into their domestic season. Rodgers must now ensure that unexpected defeat does not damage momentum for the remaining months of the season.
“We’ve got a really exciting time ahead, we’re joint second in the league and to be up there challenging against those teams after the injury list we’ve had is an incredible effort,” he said.
“There’s everything still to play for. We’re greedy and want to do as best we can in every competition we’re in.
“You’re always going to have disappointment when you lose but it’s about how you react to it. The reaction from last season has been great, so I’m hoping and praying we get as many of our players back from injury and finish the season as high as we possibly can.”
Leicester missed out on Champions League football last season after losing at home to Manchester United on the final day. Rodgers insisted that finishing fifth still represented a huge achievement and he is undoubtedly right; but there was inevitable disappointment after going so close, and then falling at the final hurdle.
Injuries to key players, such as Wilfred Ndidi, Ricardo Pereira, James Maddison and Ben Chilwell were significant blows, yet defeats to Bournemouth and Norwich, plus draws against Watford and Brighton, were just as costly.
In the summer, Rodgers and the squad stayed for a few days at the Grove Hotel in Hertfordshire to discuss the late slump, branding it “the elephant in the room”. He says they are better equipped than last season, and Leicester have lost only one league game this year.
Perhaps the biggest difference this season is their flexibility and response to adversity. Whenever Leicester have suffered injuries, a player has usually stepped up. James Justin’s absence is a bitter disappointment, yet summer signing Timothy Castagne has returned and performed at Aston Villa last Sunday like he had never been away.
Wesley Fofana was a revelation at centre-half when Caglar Soyuncu missed three months, while Nampalys Mendy and Hamza Choudhury both deputised impressively for Ndidi.
Rodgers now needs to find another solution after an injury to Maddison, while Fofana, Dennis Praet and Ayoze Perez are also sidelined.
Another concern will be their poor home form. Leicester have lost five league games at King Power Stadium this season, against West Ham, Aston Villa, Fulham, Everton and Leeds. When teams play there with a low block, soak up pressure and then hit on the counter-attack, or capitalise from set-pieces, Leicester have often struggled.
It is games against the likes of Arsenal, when the opposition are more open to attacking, where Leicester have flourished. A top-four place, ultimately, is in their own hands. Whatever the outcome of this weekend’s results they will remain in third place: they could even move three points above United if Chelsea beat them at Stamford Bridge.
Being knocked out of Europe was a blow, but will only be viewed as a blessing if Leicester deliver Champions League football. They also face United in an FA Cup quarter-final next month, so the season is far from over.
“We’ve drawn a line under Thursday night and it’s now about how we respond,” Rodgers said.
©Telegraph Media Group Ltd (2021)
Telegraph Media Group Limited