Where now for miracle club Leicester?
Their Champions League escapades ended by Atletico Madrid, Leicester City return to a normality they last experienced before their fairytale Premier League title win electrified world football.
“Life as a Leicester fan returns to normal, but it’s been bloody brilliant fun,” tweeted Gary Lineker, Leicester’s most famous ex-player, after Tuesday’s quarter-final exit at Atletico’s hands.
Leicester’s Champions League bow, which featured a near-faultless group-stage performance and a stirring last 16 success over Sevilla, gave the club a thrilling feel for life among Europe’s elite.
But with Leicester currently 12th in the Premier League table, there are no expectations they will return to Europe’s top table anytime soon.
“It’s been a wonderful experience for everyone at Leicester and they’ll remember this for the rest of their lives,” said former Foxes striker Tony Cottee on Sky Sports.
“But can I ever see Leicester playing in the Champions League again? Not in my lifetime.”
In reaching the last eight in their maiden Champions League campaign, Leicester bettered the competition debuts of Manchester United, Arsenal and Manchester City (since the tournament’s 1992 rebrand).
Their battling display against Atletico, who prevailed 2-1 on aggregate after a 1-1 draw on Tuesday, won them universal praise.
Atletico coach Diego Simeone made a point of saluting each of Leicester’s players at the final whistle, while the most commonly used adjective on Wednesday’s British sports pages was “brave”.
But after the giddy highs of the last 12 months, which fleetingly made the King Power Stadium the epicentre of the sporting universe, Leicester now face an uncertain future.
Manager Craig Shakespeare, who has revitalised the team since succeeding the sacked Claudio Ranieri, is out of contract at the end of the season.
Do Leicester’s owners, Thai travel retail group King Power, reward him for his work or go in search of a more seasoned coach who might be able to lead the club to the next level?
While they lost N’Golo Kante to Chelsea, Leicester managed to keep the rest of their title-winning squad intact, tying many of their players to new contracts.
– ‘Don’t get carried away’ –
But having had a tantalising taste of the big time, might players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy be tempted to seek pastures new in search of more enduring exposure to European competition?
Clearly defined targets for the months and years ahead are needed to establish what sort of club Leicester hope to become.
Two years ago, they were relegation battlers. A year ago, they were Premier League champions.
This season, they have enjoyed fine wins over such European nobility as Manchester City, Liverpool, Porto and Sevilla, but sat a point above the relegation zone as recently as two months ago.
“I’m not looking too far ahead,” Shakespeare said when asked what the future held for Leicester.
“You’ve got to be careful that you don’t get too carried away in football.
“We have got to concentrate on points in the Premier League, on climbing up the league, so the focus can’t be too far away.
“The here and now is the important bit and Arsenal, a week on Wednesday, is the next game.”
For Cottee, a rather more humdrum existence than the rollercoaster ride of the last year is what Leicester should be aiming for.
“What they have proved to themselves (against Atletico) and over the last five or six weeks is when they play their best players, they are a good team, not a team that should be fighting relegation,” he said.
“That’s something they should take into next season and make sure they don’t have to fight relegation. They need to be a mid-table team with the players they’ve got.”
It all sounds a far cry from the dizzy feats of last season.
But whatever the future brings, Leicester have been on a journey that neither their fans, their players, nor the world of football will ever forget.
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