After Mega Season, Leicester Must Stay Clear of “Multiple Traps”
EPL champions Leicester City must find their way around these four major roadblocks if they are to give a repeat show
Claudio Ranieri and his Leicester players should cherish the moment of lifting the Premier League trophy. Because the histories of other modest clubs that surpassed themselves suggest that the fortunes of the odds-beating Foxes could plunge sharply from here.
Like his Italian counterpart, French coach Rene Girard also experienced the joyous high of leading an underdog team to the top. His Montpellier side which, like Leicester, had been playing lower-league football just a few years earlier, defied expectations and wealthy Paris Saint-Germain to win its first French Ligue 1 title in 2012.
Like Leicester, Montpellier was outgunned financially. PSG’s resource-rich Qatari owners spent money like water after taking over the club in 2011, recruiting star coach Carlo Ancelotti and star players — midfielder Thiago Motta from Inter Milan, Brazilian defenders Maxwell from Barcelona and Alex from Chelsea, among others.
Montpellier, whose famously explosive owner Louis Nicollin made his fortune in waste management, largely built its bargain-basement but tight-knit squad around homegrown players and a striker who climbed up from Ligue 2, Olivier Giroud.
Like Leicester, pundits repeatedly wrote them off.
“We lived through six months of the same thing: ‘They’ll wilt, they won’t hold up,’” Girard recalled this week in an Associated Press interview. “But we just didn’t pay attention to anyone.”
They secured the title on the last day, finishing three points ahead of PSG.
But success, as Leicester will now discover, immediately brought new challenges.
“There are multiple traps,” Girard cautioned.
Montpellier slumped to ninth in the league the following season, flirted with relegation the season after that and hasn’t finished higher than seventh since Montpellier fans poured into the streets of the Mediterranean city to celebrate what remains its only triumph.
Here, drawing on the experience of Montpellier and other clubs, is a look at obstacles ahead for Leicester:
1. Losing Key Players
Not unlike Leicester striker Jamie Vardy, Giroud was outstanding in Montpellier’s title season, its top scorer with 21 league goals. He also broke into France’s national team, making his debut against the United States.
Girard says the flush of success can go to players’ heads.
“They can go off the rails sometimes and think they’re champions of the world,” he said.
Montpellier’s title earned less money than Leicester now has to retain key players. Giroud’s exploits wowed Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger. The wealthier London club paid Montpellier a reported 13 million pounds (then $20 million) to part with the scorer of 30 percent of its goals.
2. Champions League
Girard says the warm glow of success was short-lived. As champion, Montpellier qualified for the Champions League. But it quickly became apparent that the club lacked resources and that Girard’s players lacked experience to compete among Europe’s elite.
“When you play in it for the first time, you’re caught up in the turbulence,” he said. “It was very complicated. And that made it a bit scary.”
Drawn against Schalke, which had finished third in Germany’s Bundesliga, Greek champion Olympiakos and Arsenal — “teams with budgets four, five, six times bigger than ours,” Girard noted — Montpellier didn’t win a match and finished bottom of that group.
Its French title defense suffered. At mid-point, the club was 11th. Similarly, playing European football has dragged on other clubs that were ill-equipped for its extra rigors. Newcastle finished fifth in the Premier League in 2012, but collapsed to 16th the following season after a Europa League push to the quarter-finals. Ninth in 2013, Swansea slid to 12th in 2014 after elimination in the Europa League knockout stage.
3. Wear and Tear
The extra efforts that Leicester players poured into winning the Premier League could leave them vulnerable to injuries next season, cautioned Girard, who also managed Lille from 2013-15.
“When the players have had a difficult season like this one, you have to be on high alert afterward,” he said. “Because there are always consequences. You pay the price for all they have given.”
Yet Leicester’s match schedule this season was still leisurely compared to teams that also competed in Europe. Key players Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez played just five games — one every Saturday for Leicester, plus one for their national teams — in the first month and a half when the 5,000-to-1 underdog roared off to an unbeaten start.
In that same period, Wayne Rooney played six matches for Manchester United, including two Champions League fixtures, plus two European Championship qualifiers for England. A consequent hamstring injury then sidelined the United captain against Liverpool and a Champions League loss to Eindhoven.
Playing European games on top of league matches is wearing psychologically as well as physically, Girard said, and leaves less time for players and coaches to recover and prepare.
“It all adds up,” he said. “A lot more fatigue. A lot more injuries. You need a sizeable squad to stay the path.”
4. Duty Calls
Having impressed with their play and industry, Vardy and midfielders N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater could find themselves spending chunks of June and July playing at Euro 2016 rather than enjoying well-earned rest.
Kante, for France, and Drinkwater for England both made their national team debuts in March. And England will be looking to Vardy for goals at the tournament in France.
Players involved in the Euros won’t have much time, especially if their teams go deep into the championship, to recover and reintegrate into Leicester’s squad before its title defense gets going in August.
“The start of (next) season won’t be the same,” Girard said. “They’ll have to recover after the Euros. So they will be out of step with other players in the squad. It’s not simple.”
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