Foxes need an uplift
Only Europe can keep Leicester's flat-lining season alive
LEICESTER CITY v FC COPENHAGEN
(Tomorrow, 2.45am, Singtel TV Ch 111 & StarHub TV Ch 203)
At Stamford Bridge, Claudio Ranieri looked tired, haggard and irritable.
It was hard to watch.
No one wants to see the funniest guy at a party the morning after. The hangover makes him look all too human.
There's no joyful "dilly-ding, dilly-dong" singing any more, just a dispiriting, droopy-eyed decline.
So the Champions League offers instant pain relief, a chance to ease the domestic headache and chase away the fogginess for a few days.
Hopefully, Ranieri's swirling, fizzing glass is still half-full.
In truth, English football needs Leicester City to rediscover that uplifting underdogs' swagger against Copenhagen tomorrow morning (Singapore time) almost as much as the Foxes.
The greatest achievement in the history of team sports was always going to be a tough act to follow, but the English Premier League has plateaued a little in recent weeks.
Manchester City and Tottenham are stuttering and the champions are in free-fall. Not that their inconsistency really matters. Romance is dead in the domestic game.
However the season plays out, the traditional "haves" are going to end up with a hell of a lot more.
Ironically, romanticism can perhaps still be found in the richest competition of them all.
Victory against the Danish champions virtually guarantees Leicester safe passage through Group G and Ranieri knows it.
He's been there before.
He's a sly master of throwing eggs into one basket by slinging his best onto the bench when it doesn't entirely matter.
Back in January, the Italian was castigated for making several changes in the FA Cup third-round replay against Tottenham.
Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante were all benched and an unfamiliar Leicester side went down 2-0.
The post-mortem was swift and critical. Ranieri had supposedly tinkered with the side's momentum, throwing up unnecessary obstacles and damaging dressing-room morale.
The Italian was accused of handing the initiative to his title rivals, when what he really gave Spurs was a congested fixture list.
Tottenham won the battle, but Leicester won the war.
Against Chelsea, Ranieri repeated the trick, sending out a couple of pumpkins while he prepared his Cinderellas for the Champions League ball.
Mahrez and Islam Slimani were both benched, but it was a third absentee that did the greater damage.
Kante's defection to Chelsea only emphasised Daniel Amartey's youthful shortcomings. The Blues bypassed him.
Kante was an anti-ageing agent for Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, hiding their wrinkles and covering between the lines.
Without him, they appeared older and slower. Chelsea held up the harshest of mirrors. There was nowhere to hide.
What's worse, one of their teammates was nowhere to be found.
Every fairy tale requires a heroic protagonist and, last season, Leicester had their prince of the penalty box. But Vardy's performance against Chelsea was of the ugly-sister variety, unhelpful and unattractive.
He had one (off-target) shot and managed only four touches in the penalty area. Two goals in eight games contrast with the unstoppable scoring machine of the previous campaign.
Vardy missed Mahrez at Stamford Bridge, but not as much as Mahrez has missed Vardy in recent weeks.
A full calendar month has passed since the Algerian last found his striking Roadrunner with a Premier League pass.
Of course, it seems mean-spirited to criticise Leicester for their predictable slide down the Premier League standings. An impossible dream can only be realised once.
But if the Foxes' title success achieved immortality, it certainly didn't earn immunity.
Even overachieving dream-weavers have a limited shelf life.
Howard Wilkinson was sacked three seasons after masterminding Leeds United's title triumph.
Kenny Dalglish was gone just one year after his open-top bus parade with Blackburn Rovers.
And they were simpler times with more forgiving owners.
More worrying, Leicester were utterly abject against Chelsea. Their 4-4-2 set-up now resembles the relic it was once considered to be, both plodding and predictable.
A fourth game on the road without a point betrayed a side that can no longer spring counter-attacks against smarter opposition and cannot defend with the same rugged reliability.
Domestically, the dream is already over.
So Europe offers individual and collective salvation for the Foxes, who flourish when they gather those eggs in a single tournament basket and go for broke.
Leicester can't win the Champions League, but if they can avoid an early Brexit, they'll at least ease the hangover.
After a season of domestic bliss, they deserve a few more heady nights in Europe.
- Brugge v Porto