Le­ices­ter is back in shad­ows but up­beat

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - STEVE DOU­GLAS

This time last year, Le­ices­ter’s play­ers were re­turn­ing to the Pre­mier League as de­fend­ing cham­pi­ons and get­ting ready to launch the club’s first-ever foray into the Cham­pi­ons League.

Twelve months on and they are lit­tle more than af­ter­thoughts in English soc­cer’s fast-chang­ing nar­ra­tive.

The whirl­wind of the last three years — an un­likely es­cape from rel­e­ga­tion in 2014-15, win­ning the ti­tle at odds of 5,000-1 the fol­low­ing sea­son, then reach­ing the Cham­pi­ons League quar­ter-fi­nals — has now given way to mun­dan­ity. Le­ices­ter is once again in the shad­ows of the coun­try’s top teams ahead of the new cam­paign.

Craig Shake­speare, the coach, spoke Wed­nes­day of be­ing “com­pet­i­tive” this sea­son. He had to field ques­tions about the po­ten­tial de­par­ture of star winger Riyad Mahrez and mid­field en­forcer Danny Drinkwa­ter.

It’s a dose of re­al­ity for a mod­est team from cen­tral Eng­land that pro­duced one of English soc­cer’s great­est fairy tales.

“The roller-coaster, the highs and lows,” Shake­speare said, “I’ve en­joyed ev­ery minute of it.”

What will the lat­est chap­ter of the Le­ices­ter story bring? Con­sol­i­da­tion, while hardly ex­cit­ing, would be a good start.

Stay­ing up used to be the club’s main tar­get, but it can aim for bet­ter than that. Le­ices­ter re­cov­ered from a dread­ful start to fin­ish in 12th place last sea­son in a year when play­ing in the Cham­pi­ons League was the clear pri­or­ity.

There­fore, the top 10 should be reach­able, es­pe­cially as the squad has been strength­ened by the off-sea­son sign­ings of striker Kelechi Iheana­cho from Manch­ester City, mid­fielder Vi­cente Iborra from Sevilla and cen­tre back Harry Maguire from Hull.

It will hardly match the thrill of a ti­tle chase, but for a club that was in the third tier as re­cently as 2009, the value of be­com­ing an es­tab­lished Pre­mier League team should not be over­looked.

“Pre­mier League sur­vival is good,” Shake­speare said, “but I look at the squad and the play­ers we’re try­ing to at­tract — I want to be bet­ter than that and I think the play­ers want to be bet­ter than that.”

Shake­speare took over in Fe­bru­ary from ti­tle-win­ning man­ager Clau­dio Ranieri and re­stored some of the val­ues and tac­tics that helped Le­ices­ter de­liver pos­si­bly the most im­prob­a­ble ti­tle tri­umph in English soc­cer his­tory. A prag­matic coach, Shake­speare is un­likely to veer too much from the tried-and-tested ap­proach but some things might be about to change.

The ar­rival of Iheana­cho could lead to the breakup of the es­tab­lished at­tack­ing part­ner­ship of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki.

Maguire is likely to re­place Robert Huth as the part­ner for cap­tain Wes Mor­gan in cen­tral de­fence, and young left back Ben Chilwell should get more games this sea­son.

Then there’s what to do with Mahrez, who put in a trans­fer re­quest at the end of last sea­son. Le­ices­ter is still wait­ing for a rea­son­able of­fer for the winger, English soc­cer’s player of the year in 201516.

“I can only speak of how I have found him so far com­ing back, and I have to say he has been very fo­cused,” Shake­speare said. “He hasn’t given me one prob­lem of pulling him to the side and say­ing, ‘Oi, pull your fin­ger out.’

“We know he came out and said that he wants to leave,” he added. “Un­til we get a bid, and a bid is ac­cepted that is rea­son­able for Le­ices­ter, then he stays. While he stays fo­cused, he’ll be con­sid­ered for se­lec­tion.”

Le­ices­ter vis­its Arse­nal on Fri­day for the open­ing match of the Pre­mier League sea­son, and plays Manch­ester United, Chelsea and Liver­pool in its first six fix­tures.

“If we can be strong as a group and pick up some se­ri­ous points,” as­sis­tant coach Michael Ap­ple­ton said, “it’ll give us a mas­sive sense of con­fi­dence go­ing for­ward know­ing that we can com­pete with the big teams in the league.”

Le­ices­ter coach Craig Shake­speare: “Pre­mier League sur­vival is good, but I look at the squad and the play­ers we’re try­ing to at­tract — I want to be bet­ter than that.”

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