We’ve been wrong about Leicester City before, and we’re willing to miss the mark again.
So here goes.
The UEFA Champions League could do more to knock Leicester City off the Premier League summit next season than any other factor.
Leicester City achieved automatic qualification to the group stage of the 2016-17 Champions League on Sunday, adding another chapter to the story of the Foxes’ fairy-tale rise in English soccer. Leicester City, the favorite to win this season’s Premier League title, fully deserves the plaudits and riches that accompany participation in the Champions League.
The Foxes could face one or more of Europe’s ruling elite in the world’s most difficult club soccer competition. Preparing for and playing in Champions League games places fresh demands on players and clubs.
Some cope with the challenge because that’s the reality in which they exist season in and season out. For others, the Champions League shocks their systems.
The Foxes likely will fall into the latter category.
Leicester City can credit a dose of mysticism, its tremendous team spirit and the trust-fused bond between players and manager Claudio Ranieri for its current success. Days of rest and recovery are the beating heart of the schedule on which Ranieri’s team has run this season. The forgiving clock and calendar Leicester City has kept this season has helped prevent injuries and kept the first-team squad small in numbers, fresh in bodies and spirit and ultra-competitive overall.
The midweek games of the Champions League will disrupt that timing, preventing Leicester City from enjoying the two days off per week it currently has at its disposal. That will change the players’ lives and affect their performances over the course of the first half of the season — and maybe longer, depending on well Leicester City fares in Europe.
The second major factor is the summer transfer market.
England’s and Europe’s traditional big clubs are watching Leicester City closely, with an eye on plucking players from the Premier League champions in waiting. Winger Riyad Mahrez has been linked with Barcelona in recent weeks, and midfielder N’Golo Kante reportedly has drawn Arsenal’s attention. If striker Jamie Vardy carries his current form through this summer’s UEFA European Championship, another club could make Leicester and Vardy and offer for his services they simply can’t refuse.
Leicester City in the last four years signed Kante, Mahrez and Vardy for a combined £7 million ($10 million). The fact each of them now warrants consideration for England’s major “Player of the Year” honors represents striking transfer-market gold three times in a short timespan.
Increased television revenue from the Premier League and UEFA will swell Leicester City’s coffers this summer. The Foxes must bolster their squad in the coming months, either to replace departing stars or serve as reinforcements should they remain.
Leicester City’s looming recruitment spree will test its lauded scouting networks and player-development methods, as well as Ranieri’s ability to keep his squad in tune. New players will have to make positive impacts early in their Leicester City careers in order to maintain the Foxes’ forward momentum.
The twin statuses of reigning Premier League champion and Champions League participant will demand nothing less from Leicester City.
What are the chances the Foxes will sustain their near-perfect chemistry through the summer and early months of next season? Will the new signings become instant forces like Kante — or take months and years to grow, as was the case with Vardy and Mahrez?
Both scenarios are possible but also improbable.
Can Leicester City buck conventional wisdom in Europe next season as it has done in England this term?
Probably not, but we’ve been wrong about the Foxes before.
Thumbnail photo via Scott Heppell/Associated Press