They romped to the Championship title last year with 102 points, the joint-second highest number in the second tier of English football, but Leicester City have found their long-awaited return to the Premier League a far greater challenge.
Having ended their 10-year exile in such champagne fashion, Nigel Pearson’s side began the season brightly, taking a point off Everton and Arsenal, with wins over Stoke City at the Britannia and, famously, Manchester United at the King Power Stadium.
But a run of five defeats in six games left them bottom in November, which was compounded by six straight losses in the lead-up to Christmas. Such a stark turn in fortunes forced Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha to part with a club-record transfer fee for the second time in six months, as Andrej Kramaric replaced Leandro Ulloa as the most expensive purchase in the Foxes’ 131-year history.
But at a combined £16 million, the pair would have expected a far more productive return than the eight goals scored between them. Indeed, that outlay counts for the vast majority of investment Pearson has made on last season’s runaway Championship winners, and it is the strike-force from that title-winning campaign that the former Hull City boss looks set to bestow his faith in with just seven games remaining.
Jamie Vardy was, by all accounts, unplayable in Leicester’s 5-3 win over United at a bouncing King Power back in September – arguably the most entertaining match of this average Premier League season – but the manner in which he celebrated his last-minute winner over West Bromwich Albion at the Hawthorns last weekend showed in many ways where things have gone wrong ever since.
As the Foxes’ players, to a man, swooped towards the pocket of travelling supporters to celebrate what could prove a pivotal goal in their side’s quest for survival, Vardy pointed at himself ferociously, shouting: ‘I’m the man!’ In the coming weeks, Leicester will need to show the collective spirit and calmness to deliver in a very manageable run of games.
Pearson said after the last-gasp 3-2 victory, ‘We can’t spend too much time patting ourselves on the back.’ Never one to shirk the limelight himself, the 51-year-old may have looked kindly on his match winner’s moment of self-indulgence, and given Vardy’s influence in recent weeks – contributing to four goals in his last three PL games (2 goals, 2 assists) – he would be wrong to curb any of the gathering enthusiasm in the explosive forward.
Alongside him is likely to be David Nugent, who may well see this as his last chance of keeping the Premier League flame flickering with him turning 30 at the start of next month. His 20 goals and 14 assists last season were two major reasons why the Foxes came up, and reverting to a side that has accumulated the most winning mentality in their careers would be a smart move.
That would of course include Champions League winner Esteban Cambiasso at the heart of the midfield engine, and Kasper Schmeichel in goal, whose return from a broken toe has coincided with Leicester’s late resurgence. The Dane’s 17 clean sheets earned him a place in the PFA Championship team of the year 2014, and having him back between the sticks will have increased confidence immeasurably in the defence.
Leicester looked down and out barely a fortnight ago, seven points adrift from safety, but two wins courtesy of two late goals have given them the momentum to become the first ever side to escape from 22 points after 30 games.
As a no-nonsense Yorkshire man, Pearson would probably have a snarling, ready-made rebuke to any member of the press who would proclaim themselves surprised if Leicester conspired to be relegated from this position; by his own admission, they have their destiny in their own hands, but they also have to now deliver when the pressure is back on.
Pearson spoke cautiously in this week’s press conference, refusing to get carried along with many betting companies who tip his side to escape, despite still being at the foot of the table. If results go Leicester’s way this weekend, however, they could find themselves out of the bottom three.
The manner in which the wheels came off during a run of fixtures from autumn into winter is incentive enough not to get fooled by the fact that five of the Foxes last seven games are at home.
The first of those comes against a Swansea side who are aiming for their best ever top-flight finish. Garry Monk arrives in the East Midlands with his squad depleted by the suspension of Neil Taylor and injury to Kyle Naughton in defence, and with Nelson Oliveira battling to join Marvin Emnes as the only fit attacking option, following the injury to Bafetimbi Gomis last week.
If you think the South Wales side represent the perfect opposition for Leicester to make it three wins on the bounce, don’t be fooled. While Swansea have failed to record a win away to the Foxes since 1950, in the days of Filbert Street, the rapidly declining form of Tottenham Hotspur and the distinct possibility of seventh place becoming a Europa League berth (if both Liverpool and Arsenal reach the FA Cup final) make this far from a dead rubber for the visitors.
But with Sunderland, Burnley and QPR still to play, there is a feeling that Leicester, with a fully fit squad to choose from, could break once and for all from the hard-luck tale that has preceded them this season, converting good performances into invaluable points.
These are £60 million matches ahead for all the sides embroiled at the bottom, but Leicester will feel that while other clubs didn’t wait for their turning point on the pitch, opting for a change of management, they are ready to reap the rewards of playing the longer game.
The 4-3 defeat away to Spurs last month, courtesy of a contentious penalty among other slightly fortuitous Harry Kane goals, may well have proved their turning point – triggering anger that this would be the last in a lengthy list of games reminiscent of a plucky underdog being constantly pipped by those of higher rank in a bastardized FA Cup.
Leicester have never been pummelled this season, and if the slender defeat at White Hart Lane, which came after they had failed to defeat 10-man Hull at home, was not a tipping point, then perhaps Cheikhou Kouyaté’s equaliser after Nugent had failed to double Leicester’s lead from the penalty spot two weeks ago was. It’s really has been that type of campaign.
With the top of the table more or less confirmed, fans and pundits alike have began taking more notice of the relegation scrap, pointing at the horrific run-ins that await Hull City, in particular, and West Brom, whose season may end just in the knick of time. But as Sunderland proved last season, and Wigan before them would testify, the pedigree of opponent often becomes irrelevant when winning becomes the only option.
A recent survey revealed Chelsea as the most ill-disciplined club this season, but in the same way they look likely to be crowned unpopular winners of this year’s chief domestic honour, Pearson could yet cap being cast as its pantomime villain by prospering in the final furlong.
Pearson was the assistant manager to Bryan Robson at West Brom in 2005, when the Baggies stayed up despite being bottom at Christmas. After reports that he had lost his job in February following a touchline altercation with James McArthur, not forgetting his spat with a fan and a member of the local press, Pearson would be afforded a wry smile if he pulls off an escape act every bit as impressive at that achieved at the Hawthorns.