The Champions League returns later this month, and fans of the teams still participating in the competition will start to dream of reaching the final in Cardiff. Premier League champions Leicester City have fared quite well overall, despite a 5-0 defeat by Porto on matchday six. Four wins from their first five game had already confirmed them as group winners by that point.
Leicester’s domestic form, however, is another story entirely. A 2-2 draw with Championship side Derby County means they face a replay to stay in the F.A. Cup. In addition to suffering an early exit from the EFL Cup, they find themselves in 16th place in the Premier League table, two points above the drop zone. So what are the chances that Leicester City could become the first team to be relegated and become European Champions in the same season?
The Story so Far
The 2016-17 season is showing signs of Leicester City becoming the worst defending champions in English football history. No team has ever been relegated the season after winning the Premier League. In fact, the only English champions in history to be relegated the following season were Manchester City, in 1938. With only five wins from their opening 23 games, nobody would be surprised if the Foxes did the same.
Their European campaign has, by contrast, been quite impressive. A 3-0 away victory over Club Brugge was followed by successive home wins against Porto and Copenhagen. A draw in Denmark against the latter and another victory against the Belgians left Leicester on 13 points. The thrashing by Porto meant little, as the Foxes had already won the group.
The draw for the knockout phase could have been a lot worse for Leicester. Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain all finished in second place, making them potential opponents. Instead, they were paired with Europa League holders Sevilla, although this will be far from a comfortable tie. The Andalusian side have provided a surprise challenge for La Liga this season, currently sitting in third place.
On paper, few pundits give Leicester a chance of progression to the quarter-finals. Sevilla have already beaten both Madrid clubs this season, and regularly score three or four goals in a game. Given how shaky Leicester’s defence looks, particularly without N’Golo Kanté protecting the back four, this must be a concern for Claudio Ranieri. Manchester United and Liverpool have both scored four against them this season as well.
The biggest ray of hope for the Midlands club is that the talent is clearly there. This was demonstrated when they beat Manchester City 4-2 in December. Jamie Vardy looked back to his old self that night, netting a hat trick. It would be easy to point to a poor defensive performance by City in that match, rather than how good the champions were. Whichever way you look at it, Leicester City will need a similar performance to get past Sevilla. If they can manage it, then they can start to dream. It might also give their Premier League survival chances a much needed boost as well.
Similar Past Campaigns
While no club has previously won the Champions League, or the old European Cup, and been relegated in the same season, there have been some poor domestic performances from past winners. The most recent would be Chelsea, who won the 2012 final against Bayern Munich, yet finished sixth in the Premier League. Liverpool finished fifth in 2005, when they beat AC Milan in Istanbul, as did Real Madrid in 2000 when they beat Valencia.
The worst domestic performance by the reigning European Champions was Aston Villa. They beat Bayern Munich in 1982, but the defence of their title saw them finish in 11th place in Division One. Bayern had a similar campaign in 1975, when they beat Leeds United in the final. As hard to believe as it is, they finished 10th in the Bundesliga that season.
The last team to get to the latter stages of the Champions League and be relegated in the same season were Juventus in 2005-06. This was down to the Calciopoli match fixing scandal, however, rather than a poor season. They had gotten to the quarter-finals, but were demoted to Serie B at the end of that campaign.
How Leicester City could set an Unwanted Precedent this season
Nobody realistically expects Leicester City to go on and win the Champions League. As Premier League winners they were seeded, and given a relatively favourable draw in the group stage. But seldom have the champions of England been less fancied to go on and lift the trophy. No team left in the competition are lower in their domestic league than Leicester.
The thought of Leciester, particularly on current form, winning a competition that includes the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich hardly seems realistic. After all, this is the competition that is supposed to decide the best team in Europe. But it doesn’t always work that way. Over the last twenty years, several teams have lifted the trophy despite other teams in the competition being clearly ahead of them.
Take a look back at Porto in 2004. In José Mourinho, they had a manager who worked out how to beat every team that came their way, namely Manchester United and Lyon. Real Madrid and Bayern Munich faced each other in the last 16, and Milan suffered a surprising exit to Deportivo La Coruña. Barcelona weren’t even in the competition. All of these were contributing factors which helped the Portuguese outfit claim the trophy.
Liverpool’s victory over Milan in 2005 is seen by some as the greatest Champions League comeback ever, but mainly because they were far from being the best in Europe. For a start they had finished fifth in the Premier League, meaning they wouldn’t have qualified the following season unless they won it, which they did. In the group stage, only a last minute winner by Steven Gerrard against Olympiakos saw them qualify for the knockout stage. In the semi-final, a 1-0 aggregate victory over Chelsea was sealed by a Luis García goal that, to this day, nobody knows if it was really over the line. Sometimes, a team’s name is on the trophy.
In 2012, Chelsea became the first London club ever to win the trophy. A glance at the league table told you that, despite being Champions of Europe, they were the third best team from the capital. Their victory over Bayern on penalties saw fourth placed Tottenham demoted to the Europa League.
With all of the above in mind, as unlikely as it seems that Leicester can do it, as long as they remain in the competition they have a chance, albeit a very slim one. If they can get past Sevilla, get a favourable draw in the following round and maybe a decent slice of luck, anything is possible.
The Last Word
The reason that no club has ever been Champions of Europe and relegated in the same season is simple. To even reach the latter stages of the competition, you need to be a good team. Apart from Leicester City, all of the teams who made it to the last 16 are no lower than fifth in their domestic league. This tends to be a regular occurrence in most seasons. Even if a team is having a poor season domestically, like Manchester United three years ago, they usually aren’t in any danger of the drop.
The unique situation Leicester now find themselves in may not repeat itself for many a year, or indeed ever again. Most bookmakers would probably offer good odds on them being Champions of Europe, and a Championship club, by the end of the season. Given that their best performances this season have been in the Champions League, it might well be worth a punt. This scenario is unlikely, of course. Possible, but unlikely.