Top four race hits final lap as Leicester look to arrest slide

Leicester have become a force again under Brendan Rodgers and been superb this season but failure to beat Manchester United and qualify from the Champions League will feel like a major missed opportunity

  • Leicester go into Manchester United clash looking to secure top-four finish 
  • Chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha is eager to avoid missed opportunity 
  • After a flying start Leicester have struggled for consistency in recent games 
  • They have also been ravaged by injuries and are without a number of star men 

Ahead of his first full season in charge of Leicester City, Brendan Rodgers gathered his players and staff in a meeting room at the Belvoir Drive training ground to work out what they could achieve together.

Rodgers led the discussion and it concluded with the group agreeing on six targets for 2019-20. They have already met four of them, with the failure to reach either domestic cup final their missteps.

The others were to secure European football, score more than 65 league goals (Leicester have 67), and improve their defensive and injury records.

Leicester go into last game against Man United looking to secure Champions League football

Leicester clinched their place in the Europa League with two games to spare and a win over Manchester United on Sunday will secure a Champions League spot — a remarkable achievement for a club whose budget is a fraction of those of Chelsea and United.

Yet if they fail then many at the club — starting with chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha — will view it as a missed opportunity. In the 22 league games since Rodgers signed a five-and-a-half-year deal in December, Leicester have accrued 27 points.

Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha will see it as a missed opportunity if they fail to finish in top four

In the first 15 matches they collected 35 points and won eight in a row, including a 9-0 triumph at Southampton. On New Year’s Day, they were second, with a 14-point gap to United in fifth.

Aiyawatt made his feelings clear before the recent 2-0 win over Sheffield United. He said: ‘Recent results have left us with work to do in order to ensure we finish in a position that reflects the possibilities we have created for ourselves.

‘Our early-season form promised more than our pre-season targets. We have to seize opportunities we may not have expected.’

Rodgers says Leicester will still have had a ‘really good season’ even if they don’t get in top four

Aiyawatt is in regular contact with Rodgers and will send a message of support to the team before kick-off. 

On Friday Rodgers loaded the pressure on United, saying: ‘The expectancy is for the so-called big team (to reach the Champions League). If you analyse budgets and everything else, we should be nowhere near the position of Manchester United.

‘If we fall short then we have still had a really good season. When you are at United’s level of spend, there is a need to be there — that brings a different level of expectation.’

The spotlight has been on Leicester’s poor form post-lockdown, when they have taken nine points from a possible 24, but absences in this period have hit them hard.

Ricardo Pereira, the best right back in the league alongside Liverpool’s Trent Alexander-Arnold, has not played due to a knee injury, and perhaps only an injury to Jamie Vardy would hurt more. James Maddison has started just two games and Ben Chilwell four, with Caglar Soyuncu missing the final three games of the campaign due to suspension. That is three of the first-choice back four and the most creative player.

The injury to defender Ricardo Pereira, who has not played since March, has hit Leicester hard

The pressure has told at times, too: the capitulation to lose 4-1 at Bournemouth was as alarming as it was unexpected, and prompted Rodgers to call his players soft.

What is harder to explain are Leicester’s efforts between their 3-0 win at Newcastle on New Year’s Day and the shutdown on March 13. Despite having most of their top players available, they were beaten in the Carabao Cup semi-final by struggling Aston Villa and won just two of eight games in the league, losing to Burnley, Southampton and Norwich.

Matt Piper, the former Foxes player who is a summariser for BBC Radio Leicester, believes the team have struggled to recover from losing 3-1 to Manchester City on December 21 and 4-0 to Liverpool on Boxing Day. Prior to those fixtures, Leicester were second and being labelled title contenders — although never by Rodgers.

‘Those games knocked this young side’s confidence hugely,’ said Piper. ‘At the City game I got the impression Leicester were thinking, “We can do these”. In the warm-up they looked confident and they started really well, but then all of a sudden City’s class told. It felt as though City and Liverpool could score whenever they wanted. Since then, it has been inconsistent.’

Ex-player Matt Piper says Leicester struggled to recover after losing to Liverpool in December

If Leicester deliver against United, they will have money to strengthen in the summer and will move to their new £100m training base full of optimism. If not, they may lose England left back Chilwell to Chelsea, though they are set to announce imminently a £100,000-a-week deal for Maddison.

Rodgers admitted that ‘the Covid-19 situation will hurt a lot of clubs and we are not immune to that’ and Aiyawatt added: ‘We have had to make some changes to our plans for 2020-21.’

There is no doubt that Leicester are a force in the Premier League once more. But if they are squeezed out on Sunday, it will take some impressive words from Rodgers in next month’s pre-season chat to take away that bitter feeling of disappointment. 

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