Rodgers haunted by the spec­tre of An­field col­lapse

Hav­ing seemed nailed on for a Cham­pi­ons League place, Le­ices­ter’s late-sea­son slump is all too fa­mil­iar to their man­ager

The Daily Telegraph - Business - - Sport Football - By John Percy

Le­ices­ter City are three games from se­cur­ing a Cham­pi­ons League re­turn but, ahead of tonight’s en­counter with Sh­effield United, it feels like the nar­ra­tive has dra­mat­i­cally changed.

The spec­tac­u­lar ca­pit­u­la­tion at Bournemout­h on Sun­day has raised the spec­tre of this sea­son end­ing on a sour note and, out­side of the King Power Sta­dium, many are ob­serv­ing that the wheels are fall­ing off Le­ices­ter’s sea­son.

In the 20 Pre­mier League games since man­ager Bren­dan Rodgers signed a new con­tract on Dec 6, Le­ices­ter have picked up just 24 points. Rodgers ad­mit­ted there was a sense of “shock and dis­be­lief ” af­ter the 4-1 de­feat at strug­gling Bournemout­h, which was a glo­ri­ous demon­stra­tion in the art of self­de­struc­tion. Com­par­isons with the 2013-14 sea­son at Liver­pool, when Rodgers’s team col­lapsed in the fi­nal three games to lose the ti­tle, are in­escapable. Yet the ta­ble shows that Le­ices­ter, in fourth, are still above Manch­ester United, Tot­ten­ham and Arse­nal, and just four points be­hind Chelsea.

Jamie Vardy (right) is on course for this sea­son’s Golden Boot and fin­ish­ing in the top six, at the worst, would rep­re­sent progress since Rodgers’s ar­rival. But af­ter be­ing just eight points be­hind Liver­pool on Dec 8, it would be a bit­ter dis­ap­point­ment to miss out now.

“If you’d have said to me when we were on a pre-sea­son trip, that with three games to go, you’ll be fight­ing for the Cham­pi­ons League, I would have bit­ten your hand off,” said Rodgers (left). “There have been dis­ap­point­ments but I’ve got a real sense of per­spec­tive about how well this team has done. This is some­thing that will make us stronger and bet­ter. I’ll get that mes­sage through to the play­ers.” Af­ter their game against Sh­effield United, Le­ices­ter face Tot­ten­ham on Sun­day and Manch­ester United in a po­ten­tially piv­otal game on the fi­nal day. For now, their des­tiny re­mains with them. Rodgers ur­gently needs a re­sponse to the de­feat at Bournemout­h, and will be acutely aware that se­cur­ing a re­turn to Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball holds the key to a brighter fu­ture. If Le­ices­ter miss out on the top four, the ru­mours are that trans­fer funds will be lim­ited for next sea­son. In­deed, Rodgers ad­mit­ted be­fore the restart that loan sign­ings would be most likely. It is un­clear just what dam­age Covid-19 has in­flicted on Le­ices­ter’s own­ers King Power, the travel re­tail com­pany based in Thai­land. Le­ices­ter’s trans­fer funds would be boosted by player sales and Ben Chilwell’s fu­ture will be even more un­cer­tain with­out top-level Euro­pean foot­ball. Chelsea and Manch­ester City both want the Eng­land left-back and Le­ices­ter will be vul­ner­a­ble to of­fers, de­spite prov­ing such tough ne­go­tia­tors in the past. Rodgers will miss out on a Cham­pi­ons League bonus, be­lieved to be around £750,000, while it is also un­der­stood that player con­tracts have big fi­nan­cial up­lifts if they qual­ify for next sea­son’s com­pe­ti­tion. “You can­not worry about where you fin­ish, be­cause that will be de­ter­mined by how you play,” said Rodgers. “If you reach out for the fin­ish line too soon, you may not get there.”

Le­ices­ter’s top-four mis­sion has suf­fered from mis­for­tune at a dam­ag­ing time, with Ri­cardo Pereira out for the sea­son and James Mad­di­son (hip) and Chilwell (heel) doubt­ful for tonight.

Caglar Soyuncu’s send­ing off at Bournemout­h means he will be sus­pended for the rest of the sea­son, while Kasper Sch­me­ichel, and even the im­pe­ri­ous Jonny Evans, both com­mit­ted costly mis­takes at the Vi­tal­ity Sta­dium.

Yet Rodgers can­not es­cape scru­tiny, and nor would he ex­pect to.

The sub­sti­tu­tion of Kelechi Iheana­cho at half-time in the Bournemout­h de­feat was par­tic­u­larly strange, also al­legedly con­fus­ing the other play­ers. What was viewed as tac­ti­cal in­ge­nu­ity ear­lier in the sea­son is now seen as un­nec­es­sary tin­ker­ing. Ear­lier in the cam­paign, Rodgers would have been more ruth­less and im­plored Le­ices­ter to add a sec­ond goal. The stun­ning 9-0 thrash­ing of Southamp­ton in Oc­to­ber is proof of that.

Le­ices­ter’s ap­proach since Pro­ject Restart is more pon­der­ous and laboured, and their shot con­ver­sion rate is dra­mat­i­cally down.

Vic­tory over Sh­effield United will re­quire a se­ri­ous im­prove­ment in per­for­mance, but would cer­tainly ease the ten­sion.

Af­ter so many out­stand­ing per­for­mances, and a club record eight suc­ces­sive wins at this level, Le­ices­ter do not de­serve to be re­mem­bered for a late melt­down.

Rodgers said: “Wher­ever we fin­ish af­ter 38 games is where we de­serve to fin­ish.”

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