Nearly two years on from the appointment of Brendan Rodgers, Leicester are again threatening to break the glass ceiling of the Premier League’s traditional “top six” to reach the riches and prestige of the Champions League next season.
The third-placed Foxes lead defending champions Liverpool by three points ahead of tomorrow’s crucial meeting between the sides at the King Power.
Rodgers can sympathise from personal experience with Juergen Klopp’s struggles to halt a rapid slide in standards at Liverpool.
The Northern Irishman was sacked in October 2015, just over a year after he came within three games of ending the Reds’ long wait for a league title.
Klopp succeeded where Rodgers failed, romping to the title last season. However, the German has suffered a similar fall due to the loss of a talismanic presence on the field.
Despite the presence of Steven Gerrard as captain, it was Luis Suarez who was the inspiration of Liverpool’s title challenge in 2013/14. Once the Uruguayan departed for Barcelona, they plunged to sixth the following season.
“You can always think we could have been better or done things differently but it was just how it evolved. We had set an expectation that we could challenge but then we lost a world-class player and even though we were very much all about the team, Luis was very much part of that,” Rodgers told The Guardian ahead of his return to Anfield for the first time with Leicester last season.
Liverpool have experienced a similar fate this season since Virgil van Dijk suffered cruciate ligament damage in October. The Dutchman’s absence has been compounded by season-ending injuries for fellow centre-backs Joe Gomez and Joel Matip.
Klopp’s men have won just three of their last 11 games to exit the FA Cup and fall 10 points behind Premier League leaders Manchester City, who also have a game in hand.
Sitting between the two clubs that have dominated English football for the past four seasons are a Leicester side moulded by Rodgers into consistent challengers for the Champions League places.
Rodgers, 48, arrived in the Midlands having restored his reputation in two-and-a-half years with Celtic.
The seven domestic trophies he won in Scotland were decried by some given the Hoops’ financial advantage over the competition, but Celtic’s struggles this season show it is not as easy to wipe the board as he made it look.
The Celtic support were stung by the timing of his departure, just months before they would secure an eighth consecutive league title. But Rodgers could see the potential talent in a Leicester squad that had gone backwards under Claude Puel.
A crop of young players such as James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Wilfred Ndidi have been developed alongside veteran Premier League winners Jamie Vardy, Kasper Schmeichel and Jonny Evans.
Often criticised for his role in Liverpool’s transfer committee during his time at Anfield, Leicester’s savvy transfer recruitment has continued in Rodgers’s time in charge with the signings of James Justin, Caglar Soyuncu, Youri Tielemans and Wesley Fofana.
Instant signs of improvement were obvious as Leicester rose from 11th to ninth in Rodgers first few months in charge and nearly helped deliver Liverpool’s league title a year earlier as they were holding City at bay in the penultimate game of the 2018/19 season until Vincent Kompany’s thunderbolt 20 minutes from time at the Etihad.
A fifth-placed finish last season ultimately felt like a disappointment after a run of three wins in their final 14 league games blew the chance of Champions League football.
Now they are determined not to make the same mistake again, but must deal with fixture congestion on top of their financial disadvantage to hold off Liverpool and a rejuvenated Chelsea under Thomas Tuchel.
The return of the Europa League next week will put extra strain on Rodgers’s squad and they have also progressed into the FA Cup quarter-finals.
One feat that has so far been beyond the Leicester boss on his return to the Premier League is victory over his former club.
Liverpool have won all three meetings between the sides in the past two seasons. But this time the Foxes have little to fear given the faltering form of Klopp’s men.