If Leicester City’s emergence as title-contenders and current occupiers of the top-four has taken many by surprise, their likely appearance in next season’s Champions League will be almost unbelievable.
Even if they fail in their bid to win an unlikely first Premier League title, their reward for such a remarkable season will be entry into Europe’s premier club competition. They’ve shown they can cope with the demands of the English top flight and mix it with the ‘big boys’, but facing European sides is a whole other ball-game (well, strictly speaking it’s not, but you get my point).
Looking ahead to next campaign, how will the Foxes cope coming up against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Juventus? Can they continue with the unbridled energy and enthusiasm they’ve shown in the Premier League this campaign, or will they prove to be a mere ‘one season wonder’ and ultimately get shown up against the more savvy European sides?
Initially, a lot will depend on whether they win the league or not. Starting this season, UEFA changed the criteria for the Group Stage seedings, meaning the champions of the top seven European nations, plus the current holders, automatically go into pot one of the draw.
This would obviously be a big plus for the Foxes, meaning they would avoid many of the bigger sides across Europe. But with both Madrid clubs in the second pot this season, as well as the likes of Roma, Sevilla and Porto elsewhere, they would still face experienced European outfits.
Should they fail to win the league however, life in the Champions League would get that much harder as their non-existent European coefficient would see them in pot four and set to be drawn in the ubiquitous ‘group of death’. Having seen how Man City, a side with far greater resources, coped in their first couple of seasons in the competition, you naturally fear for the Foxes should they draw an unfavourable group.
In terms of players, a lot will depend on the incomings and outgoings over the summer. With key players like N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez likely to be targeted by other clubs, should Leicester manage to hold onto them or not will go a long way as to maintaining enough quality in the squad to at least appear competitive in the Champions League.
The draw of European football is also likely to affect the type and quality of player the east Midland’s side can attract to the King Power Stadium. We saw the impact a player like Esteban Cambiasso had on the Foxes last season, and that was just in the league. With Champions League football on offer, similar quality players will be able to be brought in to compliment the players they already have at the club.
Managerially they have experience of European competition of course, Claudio Ranieri guiding Chelsea to a Champions League semi-final in 2004, as well as other, less successful showings with Inter Milan and Valencia. Mixed success with much more established sides yes, but the mere experience the 64 year-old has could prove vital in attempting to get out of a Champions League group.
You’d certainly be a brave man to bet on ‘little Leicester’ doing much in the Champions League next season, but then again no one saw their current Premier League campaign coming, so why not? Firstly, however, they must negotiate the remainder of the title run-in, their place in the top-four not guaranteed yet, but is extremely likely.
Given the quality of their play, plus the energy, spirit and drive they have displayed so far, they will do well not to at the very least finish in the top-four and make an unlikely appearance in Europe’s top competition. And then, who knows, what have they got to lose?