Champions League glory should be the last thing on Leicester minds
Next week, Leicester City make their highly-anticipated debut in the knockout stages of the Champions League against - yet it can’t feature at the top of their priorities.
Since reaching the last 16 in their inaugural taste of Europe’s elite club competition with a 2-1 win at home to Brugge - doing so with a game to spare - the Foxes have taken a mere nine points from a possible thirty-nine.
Such form has seen them plummet to within a point of the relegation zone, dropping from 14th to 17th with only incompetence from others denying them a spot in the bottom three and all of this during a spell where they were set to turn their attentions to domestic football.
In the aftermath of reaching the last 16, Claudio Ranieri told reporters: "I'm very proud and happy for the fans, for the chairman, for everybody. It is another journey, to be in the knock-out, and whoever we play it will be a fantastic team, another fairytale.
"But our job (in the Champions League) is done for now and our mind must be on the Premier League.
"We are very close to the relegation zone and we must play at the same level as the Champions League because when we want to do something we achieve something."
Should that be the case, it would support the theory that Leicester’s players simply don’t want it enough. The weekend’s 2-0 loss to Swansea highlighted that fact more than most, as they lacked the intensity and drive of their opponents, whose desire was clear to see. Whether the manager is the issue, or a plain lack of motivation, the Leicester players need to take real responsibility for the direction of their season.
Ranieri too should be held accountable for his role in the way the season has panned out. He has remained too loyal to underperforming stars of last term, something which he has himself admitted. The 65-year-old was also incredibly naive in his post-Brugge press conference by believing that Leicester could flick a switch and return to their former selves. If it was that easy, club's likes Leicester would win the league every year.
As remarkable as last season was for Leicester, the longer this current trend continues the more the achievement is put into perspective: their 81-point title-winning haul wouldn’t have been enough to win them the title in fourteen of the last fifteen seasons.
All of the Premier League’s ‘bigger’ clubs, with the exception of Tottenham, underperformed last season, not that it should at all take any of the gloss from a stunning upset of the cards.
Yet for all of the nostalgia and affection their title triumph will undoubtedly bring, should they be relegated this season it will be impossible to disassociate the two from each other and if anything could remove the gloss that would be it.
Not since 1938 has a team won the league and been relegated the following season, with Manchester City the last club to do so and not even a run in the Champions League could justify such a drop-off. Yes, this has been a fairytale for Leicester fans, but in the long run would they take a trip away to, for example, Barcelona in the quarter-finals if next year that was swapped with back-to-back visits to possibly Scunthorpe and Sheffield United?
Supporting Leicester in recent seasons has been the most unpredictable rollercoaster with the most euphoric of highs and devastating lows. Starting in May 2013, they were dramatically beaten in the playoffs by Watford after Anthony Knockaert’s penalty miss resulted in Troy Denney sending the Hornets to Wembley for the playoff final in the most incredible thirty-second spell in Championship history.
The following season saw Nigel Pearson’s men rack up over 100 points and seal promotion to the Premier League as champions before escaping relegation in 2014/15 against all the odds with nine games to go.
Nothing in the history of the football club will ever top what Ranieri was able to achieve in 2015/16 but relegation the following year would be an analogous moment, albeit at the opposite end of the spectrum.
Sevilla will prove to be an extremely tough test given the European pedigree behind them and the fact they have beaten Champions League holders Real Madrid at home further emphasises what a strong side Jorge Sampaoli has at his disposal. The Champions League dream is luring, but a Premier League nightmare is an all the more realistic possibility.