Leicester City 2016-17 season review: Champions slump as Europe beckons

Leicester City 2016-17 season review: Champions slump as Europe beckons

Leicester City endured a rollercoaster season during 2016/17. The reigning champions took their first steps into Europe, lost a manager, flirted with relegation but achieved an eventual mid-table finish. It was certainly an intriguing campaign for followers of the Foxes.

daniel-orme
Daniel Orme

Reigning Premier League champions Leicester City headed into the 2016/17 campaign on the wave of a glorious title victory. 

The Foxes lifted the top-flight crown under Claudio Ranieri with a ten-point gap at the top of the league the previous campaign. Fans were expectant as the East-Midlanders looked ahead to the new season and somewhat miraculously an appearance in the UEFA Champions League.

Summer of change

However, before the brand new season even kicked off, a place at Wembley Stadium was waiting and a match against Jose Mourinho's star-studded Manchester United line-up. Jesse Lingard opened the scoring for the Red Devils with a wonderful solo effort but record-breaking Jamie Vardy equalised for the Foxes.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic headed home a late winner as United lifted the Community Shield. Optimism was not withered though as numerous players walked through the doors of the King Power Stadium as the East-Midlanders looked to retain their title.

Nampalys Mendy arrived from OGC Nice, breaking Leicester City's record transfer in the process. Ahmed Musa soon followed for an even higher fee from CSKA Moscow, before Ranieri moved to recruit Sporting CF striker Islam Slimani for approximately £28m.

Ron-Robert Zieler, Luis Hernandez, Bartosz Kapustka were all signed to bolster the squad even further. Nonetheless, there were huge outgoings - the talismanic N'Golo Kante departed to Chelsea for an eye-watering £32m.

Islam Slimani signed for Leicester City in a record deal on deadline day | Photo: Getty/ Plumb Images
Islam Slimani signed for Leicester City in a record deal on deadline day | Photo: Getty/ Plumb Images

Shock start

Despite all of the money spent at the King Power Stadium over the summer months, the Foxes' title defence started in the worst possible way. Travelling to the KCOM Stadium, the champions fell to a shock 2-1 defeat to newly-promoted Hull City, before following that up with a scoreless draw at home to Arsenal.

Leicester though experienced their first taste of European football not long after as the draw for the group stages of the Champions League were announced. One of the top seeds in the competition, Ranieri’s men were drawn against FC Porto, FC Copenhagen and Club Brugge.

The first league win soon came at the King Power Stadium as goals from Jamie Vardy and Wes Morgan earned the three points against Swansea City. The Englishman's form continued at Anfield as he found the net despite a heavy 4-1 loss to Jurgen Klopp's Liverpool.

This was however firmly put behind the team as Leicester City took their first-ever venture into the UEFA Champions League. Tussling with Club Brugge at the Jan-Breydel Stadion, Ranieri's men waltzed to an impressive 3-0 victory - Riyad Mahrez bagging a brace after Marc Albrighton prodded home the team's historic opening goal.

Burnley were then put to the sword as an emphatic 3-0 victory saw the Foxes build momentum.

Marc Albrighton celebrates his goal in the 3-0 victory in Brugge | Photo: Getty/ Photonews
Marc Albrighton celebrates his goal in the 3-0 victory in Brugge | Photo: Getty/ Photonews

Heavy defeats the theme for Leicester

The chance to progress to the fourth round at the EFL Cup was cruelly ripped from the club's hands as Chelsea came from 2-0 down at the King Power Stadium to earn an extra-time 4-2 win.

That was also followed by a trip to Old Trafford in which Manchester United powered to a 4-1 victory despite Demarai Gray netting a fabulous long-range strike that was applauded by Devils and Foxes alike.

The consolation though was a huge 1-0 victory over two-time European champions Porto. Islam Slimani bagged the only goal of the game to ensure the Foxes topped their group after only two games.

A 0-0 stalemate against Southampton in the league proceeded yet another drubbing. This time, Leicester City fell to a 3-0 defeat to Antonio Conte's Chelsea as Diego Costa, Eden Hazard and Victor Moses all found the net.

The downturn begins

The Foxes however continued their excellent form in Europe despite difficult times in the Premier League. Riyad Mahrez’s acrobatic effort earned yet another victory, this time against FC Copenhagen at the King Power Stadium.

Regardless of the difficult times ahead, Ranieri’s men headed into the November in good form. A 3-1 victory over Crystal Palace was backed-up with a useful 1-1 draw against Tottenham Hotspur in what was the champions’ final trip to White Hart Lane.

The Foxes then all-but qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League as they clashed with Copenhagen again. A fourth clean sheet in as many European games was earned with a credible 0-0 draw. A last-16 place was eventually secured with a battling 2-1 victory over Club Brugge – Riyad Mahrez scoring the winner from the penalty area after Shinji Okazaki had netted the opener with a sumptuous volley.

Consecutive 2-1 losses against Watford and West Bromwich Albion halted the team’s progress in the league yet again. The former opened the scoring within 60 seconds and the latter ended an impressive long, unbeaten run at the King Power Stadium. Islam Slimani was the hero soon after against Middlesbrough with his late penalty earning a 2-2 draw.

Another North-East team then compounded Ranieri’s misery as Jan Kirchhoff and Jermain Defoe netted in a 2-1 victory for Sunderland. Things were starting to get deeply concerning for the champions.

Another five goals were then shipped by a much-changed Foxes outfit at the hands of Porto, with the East-Midlanders having already qualified as Group G winners.

Jermain Defoe doubles the lead for Sunderland | Photo: Getty/ Lindsey Paranby
Jermain Defoe doubles the lead for Sunderland | Photo: Getty/ Lindsey Paranby

A renewed optimism?

With the Champions League group stages concluded, the Foxes could turn their attention to the Premier League yet again and it looked to be a helpful tonic. Welcoming Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City to the King Power Stadium, the reigning champions humbled the Spaniard.

Racing into a 3-0 lead within the first 22 minutes, Andy King scored a sumptuous long-range drive with Vardy netting a lethal hat-trick. Alexander Kolarov and Nolito notched late efforts in an eventual 4-2 victory for the Foxes.

However, the champions came back down with a bump due to a 1-0 loss at the Vitality Stadium at the hands of Bournemouth. A tough 2-2 draw with Mark Hughes’ Stoke City then followed. The Foxes had to battle back from 2-0 down, made even harder by the red card shown to Jamie Vardy.

Ronald Koeman’s men then inflicted more pain on the reigning champions as Belgian duo Kevin Mirallas and Romelu Lukaku both found the net in the East Midlands.

It was however announced that Ranieri’s troops would do battle with Spanish giants Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16, a welcome alternative to the turgid league form.

The Foxes woes were somewhat relieved on New Years Eve as Islam Slimani headed home the only goal of the game in a 1-0 win over West Ham United. This meant that after 19 games, the champions sat in 15th in the Premier League table on only 20 points.

Jamie Vardy claims the match-ball against Manchester City
Jamie Vardy claims the match-ball against Manchester City | Photo: Getty/ Christopher Lee

One win in 11

Despite the huge downturn in fortunes, Foxes’ fans went into the January transfer window with renewed optimism. Nigerian midfielder Wilfred N’didi arrived from Belgian outfit KRC Genk for an undisclosed fee believed to be in the region of £15m. Summer signing Luis Hernandez swiftly returned to Spain with Malaga. Molla Wague, a central defender, was signed on loan from Udinese.

2017 did not start well though. A scoreless draw at the Riverside was followed by consecutive 3-0 losses to Chelsea and Southampton, before a 1-0 defeat at the hands of Burnley at Turf Moor.

The Foxes did find solace however by impressively dispatching of Everton 2-1 in the FA Cup Third Round at Goodison Park – Ahmed Musa netting a brace. As a result, the champions travelled to Pride Park to battle with Midland rivals Derby County. An entertaining 2-2 draw ensued, taking the game to a replay at the King Power Stadium.

Ranieri feels the pressure

The league form did not pick up though. Manchester United earned three points with a 3-0 victory before the Foxes fell to a dismal 2-0 defeat to Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium in what looked like a crucial relegation battle. As a result, the team shockingly fell into the relegation zone before their next league game – a scarcely believable turnaround.

Although, Leicester continued their run in the FA Cup in style. The replay with the Rams went the distance following a1-1 stalemate in normal time but N’didi and the electric Demarai Gray netted wonderful solo goals to ensure the Foxes’ passage to the next round.

League One Millwall was all that stood in the way of the Premier League champions and a place in the quarterfinals. An arguable reserve Foxes' team struggled throughout the game and despite the Lions going down to ten men, it was them who earned the win via a late Shaun Cummings goal.

Another knockout competition was soon beckoning after the latest defeat, however this time it was the glitz and the glamour of the Champions League. Travelling to the Roman Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, the Foxes battled with Sevilla.

An early Kasper Schmeichel penalty save preserved the score for the Foxes but the home side then burst into a 2-0 lead. Towards the end of the game, Jamie Vardy opened his Champions League account to grab a crucial away goal for Ranieri’s men going back to the King Power Stadium.

Claudio Ranieri takes charge against Sevilla - what would be his final game as Leicester City boss | Photo: Getty/ Michael Regan
Claudio Ranieri takes charge against Sevilla - what would be his final game as Leicester City boss | Photo: Getty/ Michael Regan

Time for change

However, the team was not Ranieri’s for much longer. Just one day after the defeat in Spain, the Italian was sacked only eight months after leading the Foxes to their first-ever English league title.

The shock and disdain around the East-Midlands was palpable but unless form improved, the champions would be relegated. The Foxes had not won or even scored a league goal for just under two months and that only looked like stretching with the visit of Liverpool.

Placed in the caretaker manager’s role, Craig Shakespeare masterminded a brilliant 3-1 win over the Reds with Jamie Vardy netting a brace, either side of a thunderous Danny Drinkwater effort.

This was then followed up with another 3-1 success, this time against Hull City. The most impressive result though was the Foxes’ passage to the quarter-finals of the Champions League. Wes Morgan and Marc Albrighton netted the decisive goals on a magical and memorable night on Filbert Way – not to mention another penalty save from Kasper Schmeichel. Atletico Madrid were then revealed to be the opponents in the quarter finals.

Shakespeare writes his own tale

It was safe to say then that the good times were firmly back. Craig Shakespeare became only the third manager in Premier League history to win his first five Premier League games, joining Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti.

A 3-2 victory over West Ham United was followed up with 2-0 wins over Sunderland and Stoke City that powered the champions up to the relative safety of mid-table. The Foxes though became unstuck with a 4-2 defeat at Goodison Park but confidence did not appear to be dented.

A tight 1-0 defeat at the Vincente Calderon in the first leg of the Champions League made for an interesting tie back home – Antoine Griezmann scoring the only goal of the game in Madrid from the penalty spot.

The Foxes should have got their league form back on track at Selhurst Park but let a two-goal lead slip to only come away with a point. The resurgence then continued against Simeone’s men. Saul Niguez opened the scoring with a deft header only for Jamie Vardy to reply in the second half.

Despite considerable pressure and endeavour, the Foxes just fell short of overpowering their Spanish counterparts. They unfortunately exited the Champions League at the last-eight stage but left with their heads held high.

Danny Drinkwater battles during the second leg against Atletico Madrid | Photo: Getty/ Anadolu Agency
Danny Drinkwater battles during the second leg against Atletico Madrid | Photo: Getty/ Anadolu Agency

Mid-table mediocrity as injuries pile up

With European football dusted off and nothing else left to play for, the reigning champions switched their attention solely to the league yet again.

An unfortunate Robert Huth own goal at the Emirates Stadium denied the Foxes a credible draw and extended a long winless run against the Gunners. However, a 1-0 victory over West Bromwich Albion made amends straight away.

A fourth consecutive season in the top flight of English football was confirmed the next weekend with an emphatic 3-0 victory over floundering Watford. By this point, injuries were starting to take their toll though.

The likes of Robert Huth, Wes Morgan, Danny Drinkwater, Andy King, Nampalys Mendy and Molla Wague were all consigned to the treatment table. Nonetheless, the Foxes could have felt unfortunate not to have earned at least a point in a 2-1 loss to Manchester City.

The absences were exploited in the penultimate game of the season as second placed Spurs hammered their hosts and earned a 6-1 victory. Former Leicester striker Harry Kane netted four against his old club.

Going into the final game of the season, Leicester needed a win against Bournemouth in an attempt to finish a respectable eighth. However, Junior Stanislas scored after only a minute to give the visitors an early lead. Jamie Vardy prodded home his 16th goal of the season early in the second period to ensure the campaign did not end in defeat.

Leicester City did not reach the same heights as last season | Photo: Getty/ Laurence Griffiths
Leicester City did not reach the same heights as last season | Photo: Getty/ Laurence Griffiths

Regret? 

Eventually, the Foxes finished the 2016/17 season in 12th position in the Premier League table, a forgettable league standing. However, the achievement of reaching the quarterfinals of the Champions League will surely live long in the memory.

A withering title defence, a sacked manager, the last-eight in Europe couple with a relagation battle: it certainly was not boring. Nonetheless, 2016/17 could be looked back on with a hint of regret. Simply put, a missed opportunity.

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