Leicester City, as shown against Liverpool, struggle in aftermath of N’Golo Kante’s exit to Chelsea

Richard Jolly looks at the early season struggles of Premier League champions Leicester City, of which plenty can be put down to the departure of midfielder N'Golo Kante.
Claudio Ranieri, left, witnessed his Leicester City team get dismantled by Liverpool on Saturday evening. Darren Staples / Reuters
Claudio Ranieri, left, witnessed his Leicester City team get dismantled by Liverpool on Saturday evening. Darren Staples / Reuters

As the Main Stand at Anfield was opened to the public, the famous old ground echoed to the sound of a song. “We are the champions, champions of England,” crowed supporters.

On the pitch, there was Phil Neal, the most decorated player in Liverpool’s history. Besides three European Cups, he also won the domestic title eight times.

But the vocal fans were not celebrating his achievements. They were, of course, Leicester City followers.

If it still feels incongruous to refer to Leicester as champions — and even more so as Liverpool have not had that distinction for 26 years — it will seem still odder to see them in the Uefa Champions League.

Club Brugge versus Leicester sounds like the sort of pre-season friendly most would ignore; instead, it will form part of Europe’s premier club competition on Wednesday. It is a deserved reward for the great overachievers.

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Not for the first time in the past 13 months, intrigue surrounds Leicester: will the continent’s finest prove as susceptible to lightning counter-attacks as their Premier League counterparts did?

And yet the shame is that Leicester take their bow on the grander stage just as they have stopped looking like champions.

Liverpool 4 Leicester 1 was the kind of scoreline that would have seemed utterly unsurprising a couple of seasons ago.

It was actually the joint heaviest defeat a reigning champion has suffered since Manchester United lost 6-1 to Manchester City in 2011.

Leicester seemed perhaps what they actually are: a mid-table team, still searching for their strongest side and struggling to find form.

Last season was notable for the way they almost eradicated mistakes: a group with smaller resources, less individual ability and a lower share of possession had a smaller margin for error than the established contenders.

The fact they only lost three of 38 games showed they were almost flawless. The reality that they have been beaten twice in four now feels significant.

Leicester excelled at winning the big moments last season, but Jamie Vardy missed crucial chances when it was goalless in the opening-day setback at Hull City.

Robert Huth hit the bar at Anfield when, had his header been inches lower, Leicester would have had an undeserved equaliser. Reprieved, Liverpool duly used their greater gifts to eviscerate Leicester.

Above all, they exposed how much Leicester are missing N’Golo Kante. Claudio Ranieri joked last month that Chelsea had bought two players in the Frenchman.

The former assistant manager Steve Walsh quipped in May that Leicester played three in the centre of midfield: Danny Drinkwater with Kante either side of him.

Such were his energy levels that he enabled Leicester to play the out-of-fashion 4-4-2 and compensate for a numerical shortage in the middle of the park.

Minus Kante, Leicester have tried three alternatives in four games. It is too soon to dismiss any as failures but none of Andy King, Nampalys Mendy and Daniel Amartey have replicated his remarkable contribution.

Leicester’s ageing centre-backs were exposed at Anfield. Liverpool had the physical edge Leicester boasted last year.

The chemistry Leicester exhibited then was unexpected and extraordinary. The formula of fielding the 11 who became automatic choices proved wildly successful. Minus Kante, it may be impossible to recreate.

Ten of them played at Anfield and were duly demolished. Without the ball-winner supreme, the dynamic is different. The alternatives elsewhere are actually more enticing, with the attacking additions of the electric Ahmed Musa, confined to a bit-part role thus far, and the club record buy Islam Slimani, a potential prolific partner for Vardy.

Becoming champions enabled them to raise their sights in the transfer market, but losing Kante is a sign they paid a price for success.

As Leicester go forward into territory they have never charted in Europe, they are slipping back in the Premier League. That was inevitable.

But it will be instructive how far they regress and if Saturday’s thrashing and August’s defeat at Hull will be the exceptions or the norm for the unlikely champions.

sports@thenational.ae

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Published: September 12, 2016 04:00 AM

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