LONDON (AFP): Seven years ago, Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy. Now they are on the brink of relegation from the top-flight after a miserable season.
The Foxes, who drew 0-0 at Newcastle on Monday, will only avoid relegation if they beat West Ham this weekend on the final day of the season and fourth bottom Everton drop points at home to Bournemouth.
Dean Smith adopted a safety-first approach against Newcastle and Leicester failed to muster a shot until stoppage-time, but they kept their first clean sheet in the league since November.
It is a far cry from the heady days of 2016, when Claudio Ranieri delivered a fairytale triumph for the ages, overcoming monumental odds to win the title after Leicester narrowly avoided relegation the previous year.
Despite that incredible success, the Italian did not last long at the King Power Stadium, but the arrival of Brendan Rodgers in 2019 gave fresh impetus to the Thai-owned club.
They finished fifth in the Premier League two years in a row — just missing out on Champions League qualification — and won the FA Cup for the first time in 2021.
Even last year the club ended a comfortable eighth and reached the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League.
But things began to unravel for Leicester in the first game of this season when they let a 2-0 lead slip to draw 2-2 with Brentford.
What followed was a horror show as they lost six straight league matches and despite sporadic mini revivals they have been unable to pull themselves clear of danger.
Leicester have scored more goals — 49 — than any other club in the bottom half of the table but their defensive problems have cost them dear.
Smith, who was appointed as interim manager after Rodgers left by mutual consent in April, was unapologetic after his side’s defensively minded performance against Newcastle.
“We haven’t kept a clean sheet for too long and the reason we are where we are is because of that in my opinion,” he said.
The former Aston Villa boss added: “If it’s too little, too late, who knows? But we’ve taken it to Sunday now.”
Leicester have long been a byword for canny recruitment with Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez, N’Golo Kante and Kasper Schmeichel playing starring roles in their title-winning side.
They continued to recruit well, bringing in players of the calibre of Youri Tielemans, James Maddison and Wesley Fofana.
Fofana signed for Chelsea last year while Schmeichel left for Nice, depriving the club of leadership and experience on the pitch. Vardy is now a fading force.
Signings including Patson Daka, Boubakary Soumare, Jannik Vestergaard and Wout Faes have not made the desired impact.
Rodgers raised the alarm in the early weeks of the season, saying he had “not had the help in the market this team needed”.
“I came to Leicester to compete and initially I was able to do that,” he said in September. “You have to add quality but in the last two (transfer) windows we haven’t been able to do that.”
Two of Leicester’s star names — Tielemans and Maddison — are likely to leave the club if they go down.
Vardy, for so long the team’s talisman, is 36 and has had a peripheral role this term, while central defender Jonny Evans has only played 12 league games all season.
Dropping into the Championship is not the financial calamity it once was, with clubs cushioned by generous parachute payments for up to three years.
But losing their Premier League status for the first time in nine years will be a huge blow to the pride of a club who had experienced the unexpected thrill of winning silverware so recently.
It will be a long way back to the top.