It should have been the perfect moment for a coach like Brendan Rodgers to show his quality, but only showed Leicester City’s many problems right now.
The Irishman’s side had been given the reprieve of the second-half water break just when all initiative had shifted to Chelsea in their FA Cup quarter-final, and the Foxes were desperately in need of some intervention. There wasn’t much forthcoming, though. Beyond instructions to up the intensity, Leicester were out of ideas, and again out of goals.
The fear is now whether they’ll be out of the Champions League places by the end of the season, and maybe well before then.
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This week’s FA Cup matches only emphasised the general trend of the Premier League top-four chase since the restart. The pretenders – Leicester and Sheffield United – are dropping drastically, while the established clubs are asserting their authority. The single exception are a wondrous Wolves side, who travel to Chelsea on the last day, the same time as Leicester host Manchester United.
It could well be a classic climax for that race, up there with 2006 – if it gets that far.
For Leicester, and a side who for half the season looked the closest to Liverpool, there is suddenly the real danger they drop out of this altogether.
They are still in third, a point ahead of Chelsea, two ahead of Wolves and six ahead of United, but such leads can fritter away in what feels like an instant when you just can’t score or win games. This has been a major, major problem for them.
And the great frustration is that, beyond Jamie Vardy’s form and his finishing, they’re not doing that much differently. That’s what’s so worrying.
Some of this should be placed in a wider context. For Leicester to even finish in the top six would, in the grand scheme of things, be overachievement. The xG stats also suggest that they were for a long time over-performing.
There is still the possibility that they “level out” and actually end up above their level. It’s just that – like, say, a Europa League place – it would feel so dispiriting if they can’t arrest this slide down the table.
The issue is that it doesn’t completely correspond to a slide in numbers. The analytics suggest they’re mostly doing the same things in attack. The structure is the same. It’s just that, instinctively, it feels like there isn’t the same energy or intensity.
There isn’t the same force or unpredictability. Much has been made of Vardy’s drop-off. Many around the club, however, feel the loss of Ricardo Pereira has been key. It has made them so much flatter. There isn’t the same movement within the team.
It may mean movement in the Champions League chase.
While Leicester still have that points cushion, it does feel like the sides below them sense blood. They feel there’s a chance.
That’s emboldened by the fact they’re also creating far more chances than Rodgers’ side. Contrast Leicester’s capacity for building moves that go nowhere to the new penetration of Chelsea, the thrust of Wolves, or the creativity of United since the partnership of Bruno Fernandes and Paul Pogba was established.
City’s ban potentially moving the Champions League places to fifth felt like it opened up the entire top half below them. It now feels like Leicester’s slide opens the upper end, too.
They – and Vardy – need a goal. They need some sort of spark. It’s impossible not to feel their confidence has been sapped.
This was the wider significance of elimination from the FA Cup. It’s that it just prolongs the negative feeling around the team, while reinforcing Chelsea.
On pure points, Frank Lampard’s side feel like they’re in a relatively precarious position as regards the Champions League places. They don’t have much margin for error. One slip, and they are suddenly in danger of being directly overtaken.
It’s just it doesn’t feel like they’re going to make errors. They have so many options, and there’s an assertiveness about their play again.
That feels like what is going to settle these Champions League places.