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And so Leicester City’s fate comes down to this team. Not their team, admittedly. Not one of the best teams in the league, or one with much to play for, either. But Bournemouth, already safe, having lost their last three games, returning to a city where they conceded nine goals on their last visit, albeit not to Everton. And if Bournemouth cannot get at least a point at Goodison Park, Leicester will be relegated, regardless of whether they beat West Ham.
Seven years after the most improbable title win in Premier League history would come its most unexpected relegation since, perhaps, Newcastle 14 years ago.
A stalemate at St James’ Park may prove Leicester’s pyrrhic victory: a top-flight first clean sheet in six months, against a team bound for the Champions League, may simply have delayed the Foxes’ fate by six days.
Perhaps, even, a new-found commitment to defending may be deemed a cause of demotion. Holding Newcastle was an excellent result in isolation but the context may render it a hugely damaging one.
“We have made Everton have to win if we win ourselves,” said Dean Smith. “If it is too little too late, who knows, but we have taken it to Sunday now. I make no apologies for the way we set up today.” That way – five at the back, two defensive midfielders, a third central midfielder, two immobile strikers – produced a lone shot, to Newcastle’s 23. It was sweetly struck by Timothy Castagne and required a fine save by Nick Pope. But in a game Leicester needed to win to keep their destiny in their own hands, they drew, almost seemingly by choice, showing a passiveness as the time ticked away.
“Have I gambled with Leicester’s future?” asked Smith rhetorically. “No, I am a bit of a risk-taker and but if we came and went at Newcastle we could have got beaten four or five. They have steamrollered some teams here.” The danger is their defensiveness is remembered as Leicester’s equivalent of Manchester City’s Steve Lomas taking the ball to the corner flag on the last day of the 1995-96 season, drawing against Liverpool when they needed to win and yet wasting time while the substituted Niall Quinn ran down the touchline to try and tell his teammates they had to score. That particular City were relegated after an act of self-immolation. Maybe this one will be, too.
In the broader picture, if bad decisions have brought Leicester to this point, it was far from the worst. The poorer calculation on the night may have been omitting Harvey Barnes and James Maddison, scorers of a combined 22 Premier League goals.
As a general rule, clubs do not get relegated with two players in double figures; they certainly don’t with a midfielder with 10 goals and a winger with 12 on the bench. Many a relegation-threatened team has struggled to score. Not Leicester; or not until they dropped their scorers.
But for Leicester, it has been a year of questionable choices. They can hark back to their opening game, when they had a 2-0 lead over Brentford, when Brendan Rodgers, seemingly making a point to the board about the lack of summer signings, made a lone substitution. A more proactive Thomas Frank made five and Brentford got a point.
They can reflect on the misguided decision to let Kasper Schmeichel go and not replace him. Promoting Danny Ward was a mistake; so was sticking with him for too long as, dubious as Leicester’s defending has been, they were undermined by their goalkeeper. They can wonder about the wisdom of signing Wout Faes as Wesley Fofana’s successor: sporadically excellent, he has spent much of the run-in in error-prone mode, forever running in the wrong direction as goals were scored.
They can look at Rodgers; he wrote off some of their players, concluding their hunger had gone. It might have made a difference if Caglar Soyuncu had played more, or if he had not given up on Youri Tielemans, but perhaps not. They can ponder if Rodgers should have been sacked sooner; he almost seemed to want to go, his fire extinguished, but the timing of his sacking was terrible as their powerbrokers lacked a plan. They lost two home games under two caretakers, squandering the chance for a boost. They landed on Smith, seemingly out of more desperation than inspiration, when he was on the practice rounds at Augusta.
His decision to let Maddison take a penalty at Everton backfired, just as Maddison had erred in gifting Bournemouth their winner. Over a season, Jamie Vardy has played too often, though at least he has regressed due to age: Tielemans and Wilfred Ndidi cannot use that as a mitigating factor.
Leicester have conceded too many goals, had too many injuries, had too many players; a couple of years of bad buys and an inability to sell anyone left them with the bloated squad that restricted their trading last summer.
And so here they are, with one win in 15 games, with less than half their points total from 2020-21, with one match to go. Smith is betting on Bournemouth. Which, as Bournemouth have more away victories than Leicester have home wins, may have a certain logic. But that only highlights Leicester’s inability to win in a season where they may be the greatest losers of all.
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