I was on hand to watch the two most recent Premier League champions face off in west London as Chelsea hosted Leicester City on Saturday lunchtime. That the game was taking place in the early slot and was the first after the recent international break had me concerned that the two Italian managers might simply out tactic each other – that is to say cancel one another out, producing the kind of bland, leggy display we often are subjected to when those participating have been travelling across continents in the days and sometimes hours before kick-off.
In reality what happened was quite simple: one side turned up, the other didn’t. Chelsea’s win at Hull before the break had given them a much needed shot in the arm but this was the Blues first home game since they were pretty comfortably beaten by Liverpool and so the expectation was that Leicester would arrive eager to pray on any potential discomfort in the home team by putting them on the back foot and exposing Chelsea’s new look three man defence (without, intriguingly, a fit again John Terry.)
The first sign that that perhaps wouldn’t be happening came when the team sheets were passed around in the press room an hour or so before kick-off. Claudio Ranieri left Danny Simpson and the reigning PFA and Football Writers player of the year, Riyad Mahrez on the substitute’s bench, where they were joined by recent recruit Islam Slimani.
By leaving the three mentioned on the bench and by starting the likes of Jeff Schlupp and Ahmed Musa, Ranieri seemingly added credence to the claim that he and Leicester have prioritised the Champions League ahead of the Premier League this season. With a midweek home game against Copenhagen to come – a match where victory would all but guarantee a place in the last 16 for the Foxes – it appeared that Leicester were prepared to sacrifice points at Stamford Bridge in order to have their key men in top condition for Tuesday.
On the one hand it’s an understandable sacrifice. Ranieri, having juggled European and domestic commitments many times in his managerial career before taking the Leicester job, clearly believes that despite heavy investment over the summer, his squad does not have the depth to challenge on two fronts. On the other hand, Leicester seem certain to qualify from what was a pretty favourable group anyway. The real challenge comes once the knockout rounds begin. Even if Leicester, as expected, win their group, it doesn’t guarantee them a favourable draw for the last 16. If Leicester were paired with one of the stronger second placed sides from the group stage (and teams currently second in their groups include Bayern Munich and defending champions Real Madrid) then the likelihood is that their European campaign will be over before the quarter final stage.
If that happens, will the domestic sacrifice have been worth it? That question will be valid unless Leicester actually go on and win the Champions League. The fact is that at the moment their league form is woeful. As well as having lost all four away games, conceding 13 goals and scoring just 3, they have only won once in five Premier League matches. They are also out of one cup competition already and have several players struggling to recapture last season’s glories.
Where last season Robert Huth and Wes Morgan looked imperious, on Saturday they just looked knackered, unable to cope with the speed of thought and foot of the likes of Eden Hazard, Pedro and Victor Moses. Leicester didn’t muster a single shot on target in the match, a statistic which is damning to all who featured but in particular last season’s golden boy, Jamie Vardy. Vardy has managed just two league goals so far this season (one of which came gift wrapped from Lucas at Anfield.) At this stage last season, Vardy was in the middle of his record breaking run of consecutive goals and had already notched seven. On current form it’s difficult to see him reaching double figures this time around.
Maybe I’m being too harsh on Claudio Ranieri and his men though. Last season was a wonderful anomaly, the likes of which we are unlikely to see ever again. It ought not to come as a surprise therefore that Leicester find themselves in a position and on a run of form more befitting of a team who spent 140 days at the bottom of the Premier League table the season before last.
The Foxes are right to enjoy their European tour for as long it lasts, they just need to make sure that they’ve got one eye on domestic matters to ensure that the dream of the last year doesn’t risk becoming a nightmare.