Leicester City

What would represent a successful season for Leicester City in 2016/17?

It’s up there with the greatest achievements in sporting history, but having defied all expectations in winning the English Premier League title in 2015-16 and being rightly lauded around the world, Leicester City now have to try and ensure that they don’t go down as one season wonders.

Even as his team closed in on the title last season, manager Claudio Ranieri all but acknowledged that it would be a one-off when, having been asked if he had a message for Mauricio Pochettino of the Foxes then closest pursuers Tottenham Hotspur, he replied, “Mauricio, you can wait. Wait for one more year.”

Anyone who backed Leicester pre-season for the title at the widely reported 5000/1 a year ago certainly won’t find those odds available this time round.  At a best price of 30/1 to retain their title.

That leads us to the question as to what can we realistically expect of the Foxes over the coming months.  As is often the case when an underdog pulls off a major upset, the difficulty comes in maintaining that level over a sustained period of time.  Leicester will no longer have the element of surprise and will themselves be a prize scalp and the team that others will want to beat.

As has been widely documented, lots of factors came together simultaneously for Leicester last season and for lightning to strike twice just doesn’t seem viable.  For a start, it’s unlikely that they will be able to avoid any significant injuries to the degree and you would also have to assume that opposition teams will have wised up to their direct counter-attacking style and worked on ways to negate it.  They were also aided by all the usual title-chasing suspects underperforming to varying degrees last season – that is highly unlikely to happen en masse again.

Having Champions League football on the agenda this season means that, even if Leicester were to avoid injuries, there will still be a need for squad rotation – we could see the return of the Tinkerman out of pure necessity.  The media spotlight will be on the club in Europe and it could prove difficult coping with the dual pressures of Champions’ League group games and domestic matches over the autumn months.

Ranieri has already been active in the transfer market and the squad clearly needed bolstering with Europe in mind.  The player recruitment to date looks to have been sensible, with no big-money, high-profile players that could harm the team spirit moving to the King Power Stadium.

Even so, the signings of Ron-Robert Zieler (Hannover), Luis Hernandez (Sporting Gijon), Nampalys Mendy (Nice) and Ahmed Musa (CSKA Moscow) will inevitably push others further down the pecking order.

Those players who were on the periphery of the first-team last term, such as Leonardo Ulloa and Jeffrey Schlupp, are already being courted by other clubs and could well be tempted to move on given that their opportunities may be further restricted.

Retaining key players and staff from the clutches of more established and wealthier clubs was always going to be an issue over the summer.  In a perfect world those who were central to the title success would all declare their loyalty and stick around and it briefly looked as though that might just happen when Jamie Vardy rejected a move to Arsenal in favour of staying put and signing a new contract.

However, the recent sale of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea and the subsequent departure of the highly-regarded joint assistant manager Steve Walsh for the director of football role at Everton are two massive losses and has seen things just start to unravel a tad.  The fear now is that Riyad Mahrez could be the next to move on, with his agent, Kamel Bengougam, reportedly trying to find the PFA Player of the Year a new club this summer. Replacing the Algerian could be nigh on impossible.

The Premier League champions start their title defence with a lunchtime kick-off away to the currently manager-less, newly-promoted Hull City on Saturday 13th August.   It’s a game that Leicester will be expected to win and it could set the tone for the rest of the season.  The Saturday after the trip to Hull, they play host to last season’s runners-up, Arsenal.  The Gunners inflicted two of Leicester’s three league defeats in 2015-16, so there is a point to prove.

It might be asking a bit much for another fairy tale campaign culminating in silverware, but a top-six Premier League finish, coupled with a place in the knock-out stage of the Champions League is a viable objective for Leicester City.

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