After stomping Liverpool 3–1 on February 13, Leicester City sat in a tie for second in the Premier League with Manchester United, in prime position to secure Champions League qualification for just the second time in club history. Three months later, and the Foxes have squandered that advantage, and are now on the brink of missing out on Europe’s premier tournament by the slimmest of margins for the second season in a row.
Since that impressive win in February, Leicester has made life much harder for itself, winning only six of its subsequent 13 league matches. The most staggering blow to their Champions League dreams came on Tuesday, when the Foxes lost to direct top-four rival, Chelsea. That loss dropped Leicester to fourth in the table, just three points above Liverpool, which has a game in hand. For Leicester to qualify for the Champions League now, it’ll take either a final slip-up from either Chelsea or Liverpool, or some goal-difference magic.
If this feels all too familiar, it’s because Leicester botched its run-in last season in similar fashion, flying high in the table for the vast majority of the season only to finish fifth after a Project Restart collapse. At the time of the coronavirus stoppage in March, Leicester had 53 points, eight ahead of fifth-place United. In nine post-stoppage matches, Leicester only managed two victories.
This season’s late-stage slide is not quite as precipitous as last year’s, and Leicester does retain some semblance of control over its fate. As long as the Foxes win their last remaining match against Tottenham, they will at worst finish the season level on points with Liverpool, and could potentially advance on goal difference. Of course, Spurs is a tougher opponent than anyone left on Chelsea’s or Liverpool’s schedule (the former will face Aston Villa, the latter Burnley and Crystal Palace) and at present the Pool Boys enjoy a goal difference one goal better than Leicester’s. But in this crazy season, and with neither Chelsea nor Liverpool playing reliably enough to take winning out for granted, anything could happen.
How did it all go so wrong for Leicester again? It’s the defense, really. Though the goals haven’t really dried up for Leicester, partly thanks to Kelechi Iheanacho and his league-leading 0.79 goals per 90 minutes, the club has allowed the most goals of any top four contender this season, and there are some grisly results in this current run-in. You can’t give up four goals to Newcastle, at home no less, and expect to cruise to a top-four place. Leaky defenses make teams more prone to inconsistent form, and since the Liverpool win Leicester hasn’t been able to keep a shutout on a team that wasn’t relegation-bound: its only clean sheets came against Sheffield and West Brom.
It’s possible that this is all stress for stress’s sake. A few hours after this blog publishes, Liverpool could very well drop points to Burnley, which would make the top four picture a lot rosier for Leicester heading into the final day. But if Liverpool ends up leapfrogging the Foxes, they will have no one to blame except another inconveniently timed slump. Missing out on Champions League play wouldn’t be some huge, season-ruining disaster, especially not when the club just lifted its first ever FA Cup trophy last weekend, but it would still be a little—if only a little!—bittersweet if what has already been a fantastic campaign doesn’t end up quite as perfectly as it arguably should have.