Are Leicester City bottling a Champions League spot?
Coming off a shambolic performance and with the stakes raised further now that only a top-four finish secures a spot in Europe’s top tournament, the Foxes attempt to rebound at King Power Stadium on Thursday when they host hard-charging Sheffield United.
Brendan Rodgers’ side have overachieved most of the term, but it has been clear something has been lacking in most of their matches during Project Restart. Leicester City (17-8-10) have taken six points from those six matches (1-3-2) but slipped to fourth in the table in the process, currently ahead of Manchester United on goal difference.
Their indifferent play has contributed to a shrunken margin of error to return to the Champions League for the first time in four years, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport overturning UEFA’s two-year ban of Manchester City for European play further reduced it. The decision means only the top four places qualify for Champions League, and the Foxes are in a four-way fight with United, Wolverhampton, and Sheffield United for fourth.
“There’s always pressure, it’s dealing with that,” Rodgers said at his Tuesday press conference. “It’s about keeping the consistency, we’ve been up and down in too many of the games.
“We’ve got to stay calm, that’s very important. You can only concentrate on the next game.”
The effects of that pressure were readily apparent Sunday in an uncharacteristic 4-1 defeat at relegation-threatened Bournemouth. Leicester appeared in control of the match, grabbing a lead through Jamie Vardy’s Premier League-best 23rd goal, and were still on top past the hour.
Then it all went pear-shaped as Kasper Schmeichel cannoned a goal kick off teammate Wilfred Ndidi, who was then forced to foul Callum Wilson and concede a penalty Bournemouth converted. Centre back Caglar Soyuncu then succumbed to the red mist, getting sent off for kicking Wilson after Dominic Solanke put the hosts in front.
An own goal by Jonny Evans and a second from Solanke completed the scoring line, leaving Rodgers without the Turkey international for the remainder of the season to serve his three-match ban and potentially once more without injured left back Ben Chilwell and playmaker James Maddison through injury for this contest.
“We’re obviously still assessing Ben [Chilwell] and James [Maddison] game by game so we’ll leave it to the last moment to see how they go but [there are] questions marks,” Rodgers said.”We’re seeing how they respond on a daily basis. It’s safe to say they’ll be doubts for Thursday, but before every game we like to give them every chance possible.”
Winger Marc Albrighton is also a doubt after being forced off just after the quarter-hour.
As Leicester City teeter, Sheffield United (14-12-9) are sprinting to the tape at full gallop. The Blades are unbeaten in their last four and were at their counterattacking best Saturday in hammering Chelsea 3-0 at Bramall Lane.
David McGoldrick ended an 11-month, 26-match goalless drought for Sheffield’s first while Ollie McBurnie finished a sterling Blades counter with a well-placed header after a cross delivered by Enda Stevens. McGoldrick completed his brace 13 minutes from time as Sheffield moved into seventh place on 54 points and is five back of Leicester City entering this match.
“Thirty-five games in and the table doesn’t lie,” McGoldrick told the BBC. “That was us at our best today. I said in the press I wasn’t concerned that I hadn’t scored. The goals were coming as I have had chances. I hope there is many more to come as it means the world to me.”
Blades boss Chris Wilder is hopeful to have the services of midfielder John Fleck, who has been sidelined the last four matches through injury. His original timeline was to return for Monday’s match versus Everton, but Wilder told The Star, “I’ve had a word with the physio. We’re hopefully John will be involved.”
Though the Blades are winless in their last four (0-2-2) outside Bramall Lane, they have been tough road outs throughout the term. The promoted side have taken points in 13 of their 17 road contests (4-9-4) despite scoring just 14 goals.
Leicester are seeking the double after recording a 2-1 victory at Bramall Lane in August, with Harvey Barnes netting the winner on 70 minutes. Vardy staked the Foxes to a lead late in the first half before McBurnie leveled just after the hour. The Foxes are 5-2-0 in their last seven in all competitions versus Sheffield United.