Liverpool’s 4-0 thumping of Leicester City at the King Power Stadium has been earmarked as a key moment of the season that sent a strong message to the rest of the Premier League that there would be no stopping Jurgen Klopp’s men as they drove towards their first league title in 30 years.
But for Brendan Rodgers’ side, that Boxing Day drubbing signalled the beginning of an alarming slide which now sees the Foxes the underdogs to seal Champions League football when they meet Manchester United in a decisive final game on Sunday.
Back in February, they had been 14 points ahead of United but now stand the on the brink of a seismic collapse.
Sportsmail takes a look at what’s on the line ahead of Sunday’s mammoth contest, where Rodgers has gone wrong since Christmas and what missing out on Champions League football could mean for the Foxes.
The fight for a place in European football’s top competition has never been fiercer among English clubs. What was once a scrap between four teams as to who would settle among the top four places, the emergence of Manchester City and Spurs has seen that battle expand to six clubs.
Leicester caused the ultimate upset in the 2015-16 season to win the Premier League title and it was assumed that their moment in the sun would soon reach its conclusion, and the club would return to mid-table obscurity.
However, good recruitment and management has seen the Foxes muscle their way back into contention for European football this season, and the financial rewards could be massive.
Last season, the club raked in £123m for finishing ninth under Rodgers, who had just taken over from Claude Puel. A finish in the top four could see them earn as much as £146m, the figure earned by Chelsea when they finished third last campaign.
Moreover, a place in the Champions League would allow Rodgers to recruit the players of the calibre capable to keep the Foxes among the Premier League’s elite. Missing out on the competition could have the opposite effect, but more on that later.
In contrast, Manchester United will be acutely aware of what a place in European football’s top club competition will do for the club as they look to close the gap on arch-rivals Liverpool and City.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side have been out of the Champions League for a season already, and could clinch a place via the Europa League if Sunday’s result goes against them.
As one of the richest clubs in world football, United have managed to attract high-profile names despite the absence of Champions League football, with Bruno Fernandes, Harry Maguire and Aaron Wan-Bissaka all joining. Another season out of the Champions League, though, could hamper their prospects for recruiting Jadon Sancho.
Plenty of money can be made from a good run in the competition, too. Whoever finishes in fourth come the end of the season on Sunday, alongside the third place side, Man City and Liverpool will net a base fee of £13.8m for reaching the group stage.
If, as Liverpool did last season, one of those teams wins the whole competition, they could bag as much as £88.9m from the tournament. Pride and reputation are obvious factors ahead of Sunday’s game, but the financial rewards a win brings are mammoth.
Brendan Rodgers will be keen to stress to his charges that they have just a 90 minute challenge to overcome in order to seal their place in the top four next season, and to disregard the concerning drop in form that has occurred these last 19 games.
For the first half of the season, Leicester were unstoppable. Jamie Vardy led the line with aplomb, scoring 16 goals in 16 games, while James Maddison, Caglar Soyuncu and Wilfred Ndidi performed sublimely, leading many to believe the Foxes would not look out of place in the Champions League next season.
Leading up to the busy festive period, Rodgers’ side had won eight league games in a row before suffering back to back defeats against City and Liverpool. That double blow seems to have had a profound effect on their confidence and the results have been staggering.
Since that game against Klopp’s champions on Boxing Day, the Foxes have won 23 points out of a possible 57, in contrast to United’s 36 points from the same amount available.
Prior to lockdown, wins over Newcastle, West Ham and Aston Villa appeared to paper over growing cracks at the King Power Stadium. Ndidi missed the majority of January and February with a knee problem, and the likes of Dennis Praet, Hamza Choudhury and Papy Mendy were unable to fill the void left by the Nigerian.
The pinnacle of Leicester’s season was the 9-0 hammering they handed out to Southampton in October. The reverse fixture, just three months later, saw Ralph Hassenhuttl’s side leave the east midlands with all three points, in a clear indication that all was not well among the Champions League hopefuls.
The suspension of Premier League football would have left Rodgers’ side time to reflect on their season, and with an eight point advantage over United with nine games to go, Leicester were still well in the driving seat to clinch a top four place, despite their downturn in form.
Their opening two fixtures on their return were against Watford and Brighton, and would have been viewed as a great opportunity to return on the front foot. Whether complacency or a lack of inspiration came into play, Leicester only picked up two points from those games, and their misery was further compiled with a defeat to Everton.
‘There’s no doubt we have to have a reset mentally if we want to achieve what we want to,’ Rodgers said after the defeat at Goodison Park.
They’ve also had to make do without key performer Ricardo Perreira at right back. The Portuguese has been out since March with a cruciate injury, and they’ve often been exposed on that side of the pitch with Ryan Bennett a drop off in quality to the consistent defender. Soyuncu is also suspended for the United game following his red card at Bournemouth in another blow to the Foxes.
‘I’ve always said we’ll push to finish as high as we can. If we don’t finish in there, we haven’t been good enough,’ the Leicester boss recently said.
Rodgers is under no illusions that missing out on Champions League football will be down to problems of their own making.
Rodgers has described a top four finishing position as a ‘dream’ for the club, but missing out on Champions League football could well turn into a nightmare if they want to keep their top performers.
It’s the double-edged sword that success brings for a club that is looking to break into the Premier League elite. Wolves are faced with a similar dilemma with the likes of Raul Jimenez and Adama Traore.
For Leicester, a whole host of players have been linked with moves to the established ‘Big Six’. James Maddison is wanted by United, Caglar Soyuncu has been identified by City as a defensive solution while Frank Lampard is an admirer of Ben Chilwell. Ndidi, too, is a player on the radar of a number of clubs.
Leicester are familiar with clubs sizing up their top assets. Last season, they raked in £80m from United for Harry Maguire, and have been regarded as tough negotiators for clubs looking to prise their best players from them.
And Rodgers has admitted that the club will struggle to keep hold of their stars when bigger clubs come calling.
‘That is always going to be there’ he said in April. ‘Especially when you have talented young players. But our organisation is very much based on the team.
‘Our challenge is to continue along that route, retain the hunger. It’s always going to be difficult for clubs like ourselves to be up there but we enjoy the challenge and that’s what we hope to try to achieve.’
And herein lies the crux of the issue at hand for Rodgers that has been caused by this alarming slide in form. Leicester’s descent down the Premier League table may make it more difficult for Rodgers to convince his stars to stick with the project, especially given the fact that they are dropping out of the top four places.
They can still leapfrog United, of course, but had they missed out in different circumstances, say, after a great run of form but they are just pipped at the final post, like Wolves, then the momentum behind the club may well be enough to keep them on board.
It will say a lot about the ambitions of the club, as well as Rodgers and his players, as to how Leicester conduct their transfer dealings this summer. After all, the aforementioned players have long contracts, so the club don’t need to sell, although Rodgers may want to cash in and inject fresh faces into the squad.