The second half of the 2020/21 Premier League season is underway. The Hard Tackle runs Leicester City and what beckons them for the rest of the season.
When you think of Cinderella story in sports, the New York Mets in 1969, the United States men’s Olympic hockey team in 1980 and Pierre Gasly’s Formula 1 race win at the 2020 Italian Grand Prix are some of the examples that might immediately come to mind of sports fans.
In football, we have seen Greece beat the odds to win the European Championships in 2004. And, another such footballing story that will be recited by for decades to come is about the triumphant Leicester City side that won the 2015/16 Premier League title. After all, the Foxes were the odds on favourites to be relegated at the end of the 2014/15 season when 2015 rolled in.
Managing to escape the clutches of relegation was in itself a story worth telling. However, the Foxes added unbelievable allure to the tale just twelve months later, when up stepped Wes Morgan and Claudio Ranieri to lift the Premier League title, making it quite an unprecedented occurrence, as far as the English top-flight is concerned.
Apart from those wickedly memorable 18 months or so, Leicester have hardly done much of note and were for many years before their return in 2014 a club in the wilderness, even going as low as the third tier of English football. Since the jubilant 2015/16 campaign, the Foxes have been quite inconsistent. However, to their credit, they have become perhaps, the most stable club outside the ‘Big Six’ outfits.
In the last couple of years, the East Midlands club have shown a marked improvement under the tutelage of Brendan Rodgers, whose arrival galvanized a certain Jamie Vardy, in particular. In fact, it is Vardy’s resurgence that played a critical role in Leicester’s return to Europe, with the Foxes nearly snatching a place in the top four as well last season, with Vardy winning the Golden Boot.
Happy 34th birthday to the oldest Premier League Golden Boot recipient, Premier League winner and the only player to score in 11 consecutive Premier League games.
Happy birthday, Jamie Vardy. 🎉pic.twitter.com/TLmmYwOIzS
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) January 11, 2021
In the ongoing season, Leicester have continued on their upward trajectory and it seems like they might just go a step further and return to the UEFA Champions League for the first time in five years. The arrival of Timothy Castagne and Wesley Fofana has gone a long way in bolstering the defensive unit, which now complements the tricky attacking group to near perfection.
Things did not exactly look too promising in the short pre-season, but Leicester started their Premier League campaign in clinical fashion, with wins in their first three games propelling them to the top of the table. While victories over West Bromwich Albion and Burnley were expected, it is the 5-2 thrashing of Manchester City in Gameweek 3 that saw Rodgers & co. lay the hammer down.
However, almost just as quickly, the Foxes were brought down to the ground, with shock home defeats to West Ham United and Aston Villa taking some of the steam out of their early onslaught. Another three-match winning run followed, with wins over Arsenal, Leeds United and Wolves taking them back to the summit.
A bout of inconsistency once again struck Leicester, who lost three of their five subsequent outings to once again lose some momentum. However, since their defeat to Everton in December, they have been beaten just once in their 10 subsequent games, a run of results that has kept them in the discussions for an surprise title push, although in recent weeks, the relentless Manchester City have stretched their lead to seven points.
Suffice to say, in a season wherein Leicester have been in the top four from the very first gameweek, there have been plenty of players who have stepped up and supported the likes of Jamie Vardy, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans. Let us take a closer look at such figures.
The likes of Jamie Vardy, James Maddison and Youri Tielemans have once again delivered the goods while Wilfred Ndidi has continued to be a pivotal figure for Leicester City. Jonny Evans and Kasper Schmeichel’s importance in the side has grown further while Timothy Castagne has proven to be a top class signing.
Two players, though, whose performances have been most pleasantly surprising are Wesley Fofana and James Justin. While Fofana is a player who was rated quite highly before he arrived at the King Power Stadium, which means his exploits might not have shocked many, it is Justin whose growing stature under Brendan Rodgers could not have been foreseen.
With Ricardo Pereira recovering from a long-term injury and Ben Chilwell no longer at the club, it was quite intriguing to see ahead of the season as to how Rodgers would fill the vacant left-back slot. Castagne was theoretically one of the options, with the general consensus being that Justin would be favoured in his preferred right-back berth.
Instead, Rodgers went ahead with Justin on the left flank and Justin has not been disappointing for a single moment. The manager’s attack-oriented approach has gone on to work to his strengths and the young Englishman has been a revelation with his adventurous runs, providing the creative impetus that complements Harvey Barnes and Maddison efficiently.
At the same time, Justin has also chipped in with some important goals and assists, creating the kind of tandem with Castagne that Ricardo and Chilwell were renowned for over the last couple of seasons. That Justin has constantly been preferred over a natural left-back in Christian Fuchs in itself speaks volumes about his impact.
However, after picking up a gruesome injury this week in the FA Cup, there would be concerns over his participation for the rest of the season. Rodgers and Leicester fans would surely hope that it is not a serious issue and that Justin is back in no time to continue running riot on the left flank.
The Big Challenge
— Premier League (@premierleague) February 8, 2021
To somehow belie the conventional wisdom that the Thursday-Sunday routine borne out of UEFA Europa League participation. The knockout stages of Europe’s second-tier club competition is set to begin imminently and that brings with itself the biggest challenge that Leicester have faced till date this season.
With James Justin, Timothy Castagne and Wesley Fofana all out injured currently, the defence is sure to suffer, which will only heap the pressure on the attacking unit. At a time when Chelsea have been closing in on those presently stationed in the top four under Thomas Tuchel, Leicester just cannot afford a single moment of slip-up.
Yes, Liverpool have been disappointing due to their inconsistencies this term, but Jurgen Klopp has a squad brimming with talent at his disposal and the players are touted to start performing to potential sooner rather than later. Participation in the Europa League will amp up the fatigue factor more than it has so far this season.
If Leicester end up going deep into the competition, Brendan Rodgers will need to manage his group’s fitness efficiently. If not, one can be sure that the demons of last season will resurface again, with the lurking Chelsea and maybe others as well soon catching up to Leicester, pushing them out of the Champions League spots. The final four months will be extremely critical.
Predicted Finish in 2020/21 Season: 4th
We have already established how Leicester City could soon be precariously looking over their shoulders once their UEFA Europa League campaign resumes. However, with the volume of midweek games has increased compared to other seasons, the Foxes would already have grown accustomed to the demands of a cramped up schedule.
In addition, the capitulation in the second half of last season would surely be fresh in the minds of the Leicester players and Brendan Rodgers should have learnt from those mistakes. Having said that, the East Midlands outfit could be braced for a slide down the table, albeit one that would not be enough to put them out of the top four this time around, meaning they should return to the UEFA Champions League next season.