On Friday, Claudio Ranieri was asked if he had ever been relegated. He took his audience on a lengthy tour of his CV, omitting only his time at Atletico Madrid. Then, and though Ranieri was dismissed before the end of the campaign, the Spanish giants went down for the first time since the 1930s. Warnings from that dreadful decade seem to be ignored in ever greater frequency and England’s last defending champions to go down were Manchester City in 1938.
On Sunday, Kasper Schmeichel branded Leicester City’s title defence as “embarrassing” and, inverting the usual defiant player-speak, admitted that if they carry on in a similar vein, they will be demoted.
Welcome to Leicester, where Ranieri is Fifa’s reigning Coach of the Year and now the favourite in the Premier League’s sack race. Sunday marked the one-year anniversary of the 3-1 win at Manchester City that persuaded the Italian his side would win the league. They were massive outsiders, the unlikely lads who orchestrated the most improbable heist in footballing history.
■ Team of the week: Lukaku and Hazard are in
■ Round-up: Gabriel Jesus double lifts Man City past Swansea
Theirs was an outlandish, engrossing adventure, even if the sequel to the heart-warming story of a band of brothers has the feel of a horror movie. Where there was harmony, there now seems discord. Where there was success, failure now beckons. Leicester, a hitherto unexceptional provincial club with a loyal fan base and a status as either one of the smaller clubs in the top flight or the bigger in the second tier, could make a second indelible mark in history.
Collectively, they seem to be having not one but two out-of-body experiences, lifted up and dragged down by forces beyond their control. They appeared to have an unstoppable momentum last season. Now they feel powerless to halt their decline.
The numbers underline the scale of change. Leicester have 29 points fewer than they did last season. They have already lost 10 more games and conceded five more goals than in the whole of that campaign. There has been a 68-point swing between them and Chelsea, coinciding with N’Golo Kante’s move to Stamford Bridge. Leicester have not even scored a league goal in 2017. Indeed, Jamie Vardy has failed to score in 23 of his last 24 appearances.
In a side where individual deficiencies have been highlighted in the absence of the catalytic Kante, where Ranieri’s 4-4-2 has not worked and nor have his attempts to move away from it – remember his disastrous diamond midfield at Southampton? – the unique nature of last season has been illustrated.
Vardy looks the one-dimensional player who, two years ago, had a solitary Premier League goal to his name. Riyad Mahrez scored 17 league goals last season; now he has none, apart from penalties. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth again resemble the one-paced throwbacks who seemed a Championship player and a Stoke City reject respectively. Supermen look distinctly human again.
Yet the most damning indication of Leicester’s shift came off the field when Leonardo Ulloa took to social media to claim he had been “betrayed” by Ranieri and vowed not to play for the club again, a stand-off rendered all the more depressing as the Argentine was trying to engineer a move to a dismal Sunderland side.
Last year, Ulloa was the selfless substitute, the invaluable 12th man, the deputy who stood in when Vardy was suspended. This year, he has been one of those displaced by the £70 million (Dh320m) summer spending spree. Ulloa had a significance because of what he represented. Now he has another, emphasising the sense that Ranieri retains his popularity outside the dressing room, but not inside it.
When Ranieri started saying “everything is wrong”, it felt an exaggeration, not an explanation. Now it seems truer. Results and performances, attack, defence and a Kante-less midfield, spirit and signings: all are wrong. Last year Leicester were in a title race where others failed to present enough of a challenger. Now they are in a relegation scrap where Swansea City and Hull City are staging remarkable revivals. After the glory, ignominy beckons for Leicester.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport