January brings a big test of Leicester’s Champions League qualifying
It’s easy to forget that before the start of the season, the mood at Leicester City was far from triumphant.
Their incredible surrender in the second half of the 2019/20 campaign – in which they relinquished an “unassailable” lead and pulled out of the top four on the final day – was still fresh in the minds of fans, as their commitments in the Europa League were expected. to hamper their domestic form.
Flash before the present and after 17 games, Leicester are only one point less than Liverpool and only six less than at this stage last season.
However, it is a very different league from last season. This time last year, Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester City had already built up a big cushion on the teams below them. This time around, tenth-placed West Ham are just seven points off the top spot, with all sides above them harboring title ambitions of varying feasibility.
Good news for fans of an easier to follow Premier League narrative, the next few weeks should see the table slowly starting to look like its final form. It is far from certain where Leicester will end up ending up, but they can make a statement of their four main ambitions in a busy month of action.
After facing Stoke City in the FA Cup on Saturday, in what broadcasters are expected to double the Robert Huth derby, the Foxes welcome sixth place Southampton and ninth place Chelsea back to back. They then travel to seventh-place Everton before the end of January with a visit from Leeds.
The first trio of matches all take place against teams that are only a few points away from them. So the rewards for achieving three wins – or even just avoiding defeat – would be lavish. But the Foxes will need to improve their less than impressive record at home.
Of their five losses this season, four have come home. The main problem in the losses to West Ham, Aston Villa, Fulham and Everton was their inability to create chances. Villa aside, the Foxes have enjoyed over 60% possession in all of those encounters but have been unable to break their opponents’ low blocks after falling behind.
In that sense, Leicester can feel pretty confident about their home games this month. It’s hard to imagine Southampton or Leeds going to King Power Stadium and deploying those kinds of defensive tactics.
The strong pressure from the pair is likely to leave a lot of room for Leicester to exploit if they can force turnovers, which they have done as effectively as any Premier League side this season, ranking in the top five for most tackles and interceptions.
In full swing, their counterattack is among the most attractive in Europe with the pace of Harvey Barnes and James Justin, combined with the cunning of James Maddison and Youri Tielemans making an irresistible match. Leicester have already subjected Leeds to a dominant 4-1 defeat this season and there’s little reason they can’t present the same transition threat later this month.
As for Chelsea, well, they just aren’t playing very well, are they? It might sound crazy considering how much Frank Lampard has spent this summer, but in its current form a trio of Ndidi, Maddison and Tielemans looks a lot more appealing than the crazed midfield group the Blues have subjected us to these last weeks.
Everton are probably providing the toughest test of all this month. Having already beaten Leicester once this season, Carlo Ancelotti will be confident to repeat the round but the Foxes should not be afraid. As poor as their home record was, their brilliant away form made up for it.
No team has gained more away points than them this season (22) and their only loss on the road has been against leaders Liverpool. Their fantastic record also includes famous scalps, with Manchester City, Tottenham, Leeds and Arsenal all beaten on their travels.
If you’re still not convinced that January will be a season-defining month for Leicester, news of Ricardo Pereira’s imminent return to top form should do the trick.
The flying right-back has carved out a reputation as one of the best right-backs in the world since arriving in the East Midlands in 2018 and doing it in form and shooting will increase Leicester’s already powerful threat to the counter.
Last season, the start of 2020 was when the Foxes’ season wheels came crashing down. This time around, it could be the period in which their Champions League load starts to pick up.