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Leicester City Seemed Like A Sure Thing For The Champions League. Not Anymore.

Leicester City looked destined for Champions League qualification for much of the Premier League season. Leading up to the intense stretch of matches held around Christmas, only Liverpool was outperforming the Foxes on the league table. Leicester won 12 of its first 16 matches and even had a better goal differential than the pace-setting Reds over that same stretch. Through matchweek 16, the Foxes were a shocking 6 points ahead of third-place Manchester City and just 8 points behind Liverpool at the top.

FiveThirtyEight’s club soccer prediction model didn’t love Leicester’s chances of pulling off another miraculous title run — it gave the Foxes just a 3 percent chance of winning it all as of Dec. 11, 2019 — but the model loved Leicester’s chances of qualifying for the Champions League. Even after Leicester’s back-to-back holiday defeats to Man City and Liverpool, the model continued to favor the squad above Chelsea, Tottenham, Manchester United and Wolves for Champions League qualification.

From Dec. 4 through July 1, Leicester’s chances to qualify for the continent’s top competition never fell below 84 percent, peaking at 97 percent on Feb. 19, just days after UEFA banned Manchester City from participating in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 editions of the Champions League for breaching its Financial Fair Play (FFP) rules. With the ban in place, third-place Leicester became England’s second-best team in the eyes of UEFA. If the Foxes looked like a safe bet for Champions League qualification before City’s ban, they looked a sure thing in its aftermath.

But since the 4-0 home thrashing it suffered on Boxing Day1 at the hands of Liverpool, Leicester has struggled. Before that loss, the Foxes had collected 39 points from 18 matches; they’ve tallied just 20 points from their subsequent 16. Only seven teams — each of which sits on the bottom half of the table, and five of which are battling against relegation — have fewer points than Leicester since matchweek 19.

To a certain degree, Leicester has been the architect of its own demise. It has dropped points against Bournemouth, Brighton and Watford in 2020, three teams still fighting relegation with three games remaining, and Norwich City, which is already destined for Championship play next season.

Even when Leicester was winning early on in the season, it was doing so more than it should have because it was far outperforming its expected goals (xG) stats: From matchweek 1 through matchweek 18, Leicester City averaged 2.28 goals per 90 minutes despite averaging just 1.92 xG. This overperformance made folks wonder if Leicester’s excellent form was sustainable. When the goals stopped flying in above expectation — Leicester has underperformed its xG since Boxing Day, averaging just 1.41 goals per 90 minutes despite an xG of 1.65 — and when Leicester’s defense transformed from the league’s stingiest to perfectly average, it became apparent that Leicester’s excellent form wasn’t just unsustainable, it might just have been a mirage.

[Related: Our Club Soccer Predictions]

Leicester’s woes were compounded this week when Man City won its appeal with the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), which reversed the UEFA ban. If the ban had stood, City’s place in next season’s edition of the Champions League would have fallen to the Premier League’s fifth-place team. Leicester’s form hasn’t been particularly good for six months now, but its odds to qualify for the Champions League remained high as of July 8 because it still looked as though fifth place would be good enough.

But the CAS reversal means fifth place won’t cut it this year, and Leicester’s odds, along with its form, remain in a freefall: With three games left, the Foxes sit in fourth place, owning a goal differential edge over Manchester United, with whom they’re tied in points. But the FiveThirtyEight model gives the Foxes just a 47 percent chance to qualify for the Champions League. Leicester was a sure thing a week ago; today, Leicester is no more a sure thing than the results of a coin toss.

It remains to be seen whether manager Brendan Rodgers can right the ship and get Leicester over the line. Having a hot Jamie Vardy in his squad certainly helps. Having games against Tottenham, Sheffield United and Manchester United — three clubs with European aspirations of their own — helps a little less. But Leicester has proved that it’s capable of defying expectations before. The last time it did so, it won the Premier League. If it doesn’t do so this time around, there won’t be a parade through the streets of Leicester — only a long, empty trail of what-ifs.

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Footnotes

  1. Or Dec. 26, as Americans call it.

Terrence Doyle is a writer based in Boston, where he obsesses over pizza and hockey.

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