FiveThirtyEight

After Matchweek 24 of the 2019-20 Premier League season, it appeared as though Leicester City was a lock to finish in the top four and qualify for the 2020-21 Champions League. The Foxes were in third place, too far behind eventual champions Liverpool to mount a legitimate title challenge — wasn’t everyone? — but just 3 points behind second-place Manchester City. More crucially, Leicester was 8 points clear of Chelsea in fourth and 14 points clear of Manchester United in fifth. Barring a monumental collapse, the Foxes looked poised to make their second appearance in five years in Europe’s top club competition.

From Matchweek 1 to 24, the Foxes picked up points at a pace of 2 per game — not record-setting, but not bad either. If they continued picking up points with exactly the same regularity from Matchweek 25 to 38, they would have finished the season with 76 points. Again, not record-setting, but good enough for a Champions League place in all but one season in the past two decades.

Somewhat remarkably — and altogether disastrously — Leicester managed to win just three of its remaining 14 matches in 2019-20, losing six and drawing five, good for just 22 points from the 42 on offer. The Foxes finished fifth, behind both Chelsea and Manchester United. The latter made up that 14-point gap and then some, finishing a full 4 points ahead of Leicester. Collapses don’t get much more monumental than 18-point swings over the course of 14 matches. 

This is all relevant because it appears as though it might be happening again, albeit on a decidedly less monumental scale. At no point this season has Leicester had the same seemingly ironclad grip on the top four as it did before it fell apart in 2019-20 — the largest gap it’s held over the fifth-place team this season is 8 points — but its Champions League odds have fallen off a cliff in recent weeks. According to FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model, Leicester has a 56 percent chance of qualifying for next season’s Champions League. On March 21, its chances stood at 70 percent.

Leicester’s flagging Champions League push corresponds with a dip in form: The Foxes have lost three of their past six matches — winning just twice, and only once convincingly. After wins against top four challengers Liverpool and Aston Villa in Matchweeks 24 and 25, Leicester had found itself in third place, 4 points above West Ham and 6 points above Chelsea. That (admittedly small) cushion has all but disappeared: Just 4 points separate Leicester — still in third, for what it’s worth — and sixth-place Liverpool. 

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Leicester’s recent six-match slide isn’t exactly a crisis — it managed to beat a criminally underrated Brighton team and smash soon-to-be relegated Sheffield United along the way — but fans of the Foxes could be forgiven for whatever tightness they’re beginning to feel in their chests. They’ve seen this film before. 

Of the six teams vying for the final two Champions League positions, Liverpool has the easiest remaining schedule in terms of average Soccer Power Index rating among its remaining opponents. 

Liverpool has the easiest road of the contenders

Teams in the third through eighth place in the Premier League table by average Soccer Power Index (SPI) rating of their remaining opponents

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Ratings as of April 12, 2021.

Sources: Premier League, ESPN

The Reds have struggled for much of the season — an unprecedented injury crisis will do that to a club — especially lately, and absurdly at Anfield, which used to be a fortress. But a recent run of three league wins has positioned them squarely back in the race for the top four. According to the model, Liverpool has the third best chance of qualifying for the Champions League (57 percent), and the best of the group of six jockeying for the final two spots. Its chances slipped as low as just 20 percent on March 10, but its recent run of good form and its relatively easy remaining schedule has Liverpool looking like a top four favorite, if just.

Fortunately for Leicester, its Champions League odds still outpace Chelsea, Tottenham Hotspur, West Ham and Everton. Unfortunately for Leicester, it has to play Manchester United, Chelsea and Spurs back to back to back to end its season. 

United will almost certainly have wrapped up its place in next season’s Champions League by then, so perhaps Leicester will get lucky and get to play a B-squad. The same probably won’t be true of Chelsea and Spurs. And while the latter’s odds are vanishingly small at this point — José Mourniho’s team has just a 6 percent chance of qualifying for the Champions League — Chelsea is on fire. The Blues have picked up points in all but one match since Thomas Tuchel took the reins in late January. 

If Liverpool continues its resurgence, the May 15 match between Leicester and Chelsea could determine whether the Foxes get to make their mark on Europe next year — or whether they remain on the outside looking in on the giants of English soccer.

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