London (AFP) – The anguished tone in Kasper Schmeichel’s voice told the story of the turmoil gripping Leicester as the Premier League champions slumped into a relegation crisis that triggered Claudio Ranieri’s brutal sacking on Thursday.
“We’re the reigning champions and quite frankly it’s been terrible. It’s been embarrassing,” the Leicester goalkeeper told a television reporter after a dismal 3-0 defeat at home to Manchester United on February 5.
“It’s time for every single one of us, right from the top to the bottom of this club, to stand up and be counted because if we don’t, we’re going to end up getting relegated.”
A year on from a stunning 3-1 win at Manchester City that sent them five points clear at the league summit, the loss to United left Ranieri’s men a solitary point above the relegation zone.
Leicester’s Thai owners felt compelled to issue a vote of confidence in Ranieri, but the team remained in dire trouble after an even more damaging 2-0 defeat at fellow strugglers Swansea days later and the beleaguered Italian was about to pay the price.
Reports emerged that Ranieri was unable to quell squad unrest over his tactics and selection decisions, with the former Chelsea boss forced to deny claims his players were unhappy he had banned chicken burgers from the training ground canteen.
A 1-0 loss at third tier Millwall in the FA Cup fifth round on Saturday, in which his lethargic side were out-fought by 10 men for much of the second half, was another huge blow to Ranieri’s credibility.
His team had lost their past five league matches and were the only side in the top four English divisions without a league goal in 2017.
The final straw came in Sevilla, where Leicester were beaten 2-1 in a Champions League last 16 first leg clash that the Spanish side could easily have won by a far greater margin.
Ranieri had only signed a new contract in August, but by the time Leicester arrived home, he was a dead man walking.
Only 292 days after Leicester’s title triumph climaxed with the trophy presentation amid fireworks and a fanfare from opera singer Andrea Bocelli, Ranieri discovered his time was up.
– Unforgivable –
It was a stunningly abrupt end to Ranieri’s reign and many had sympathy for the genial coach’s demise.
“After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad,” Leicester legend Gary Lineker said.
But money talks loudest in the Premier League and the risk of losing over £150 million in television and commercial revenue if Leicester were relegated was too much for vice chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha to stomach with only 13 games remaining.
Leicester’s woes were embodied by the woeful form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the rough-cut attacking stars whose goals and assists catapulted the Foxes to the title.
N’Golo Kante, Leicester’s other stand-out player last season, was the only departure during the close season and the club have failed to plug the hole created by his move to current leaders Chelsea.
Injury has hampered Nampalys Mendy since he signed from Nice and with Daniel Amartey an unconvincing stop-gap, Leicester splashed out £15 million ($18.7 million, 17.4 million euros) to sign Wilfred Ndidi last month.
Leicester lost head of recruitment Steve Walsh to Everton after last season’s triumph and their transfer activity since has been patchy.
Ahmed Musa has not convinced, Mendy has barely played, Ron-Robert Zieler has looked a less than capable deputy for Schmeichel and Luis Hernandez lasted just half a season before being sold to Malaga.
Ranieri stuck with a tried and tested 4-4-2 system throughout last season, but the Italian’s attempts to broaden his players’ horizons this term produced some confused performances.
Just nine months after the dizzy climax to their 5,000-1 title triumph, Leicester now face the prospect of becoming England’s first defending champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938.
Former Manchester City manager Roberto Mancini and ex-Chelsea boss Avram Grant are reportedly among the contenders to replace Ranieri.
Survival will be the new man’s only mission this season, but whoever comes in has little time to stop Leicester’s rags to riches rise coming to a depressing conclusion.
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