How Leicester bounced back to PL at first time of asking

Daily News
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How Leicester bounced back to PL at first time of asking

It was touch-and-go at times towards the end, but Leicester have now secured promotion back to the Championship at the first time of asking.

The Foxes – who won the Premier League against the odds in 2015/16 – had been relegated under Dean Smith on the final day of the 2022/23 season, bringing their nine-season spell back in the top flight to a close.

But Leeds’ own automatic promotion hopes took a hit when they were beaten by QPR at Loftus Road on Friday night, which took Leicester over the line they have been threatening to cross for so long.

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From the manager who turned things around to their star man and unsung hero, Sky Sports duo Simeon Gholam and David Prutton analyse how Leicester won promotion back to the Premier League.

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Highlights from the Championship clash between Leicester and Southampton.

Here, we take a look at how Enzo Maresca and Co did it…

Monday 29th April 7:00pm Kick off 8:00pm

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The flying start

At first, it went like a dream.

When Leicester won 12 of their first 13 games after relegation from the Premier League, even at that early stage, it seemed as if it was a case of if, not when, they would bounce back at the first time of asking.

They were only the third team in second tier history to achieve that feat after Bury (1894/95) and Bristol City (1905/06) and were on course to obliterate Reading’s Championship record of 106 points by a stunning 21-point margin.

Enzo Maresca’s Foxes were simply blowing everyone away. Even reigning champions Burnley had only collected 22 points from their first 13 on the way to the title last term.

It was, perhaps, surprising in some ways, given the standard of players that had moved on in the summer, with the headline departures of James Maddison, Harvey Barnes and Youri Tielemans compounding a painful drop from the top flight.

The signing of former England internationals Conor Coady and Harry Winks was sensible – and on another level for a Championship club – yet there had still been question marks over the club’s decision to recruit younger, largely untested players. Of course, those were quickly put to bed.

A 2-1 win at QPR on October 28 put Leicester five points clear of second-placed Ipswich and a remarkable 14 clear of Leeds in third.

“We have just one problem: we are still in October. I would like to still be in the same position in February, March and April,” said Maresca after the final whistle.

He was right to be cautious, as his side won only one of the next four. Even so, they bounced back with seven wins in the next eight games up to and including New Year’s Day; a run that extended the seemingly unassailable lead to 10 points.

Image: Enzo Maresca has picked up three Sky Bet Championship Manager of the Month awards this term

It came as no surprise when the Italian collected the Sky Bet Championship Manager of the Month award for December, completing a hat-trick of sorts after his triumphs in August and October.

Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall had been the star of the show – the conductor, if you will – with Abdul Fatawu and Stephy Mavididi the creative sparks. Meanwhile, Jamie Vardy had exemplified the role of a captain by chipping in with six league goals, despite infrequent starts and a knee injury that had forced him out of eight games.

After the FA Cup third round weekend, Coventry came from 1-0 down to beat Leicester 3-1 on January 13, nine days before the Foxes’ 1-1 draw at home to Ipswich, who they could just not shake off.

Another run of four straight wins suggested those two games were just an inevitable bump in the road. But were they? What would a good story be without a twist?!

And then the dip

So, to say the last two months have been troublesome would be quite the understatement.

Leicester were still nine points clear of Leeds on February 17, even after a 2-1 loss to Middlesbrough.

But that gap narrowed to six after a damaging 3-1 defeat to Leeds, in a game where they’d taken the lead, and became just three when they lost 2-1 to QPR. More concerningly, there were now only eight points between them, Ipswich, Leeds and Southampton.

“It’s been long time since we have been at the top and everyone is chasing us,” said Maresca after the QPR game. “We can’t think about that, we just need to win games.

Leicester City's most-used line-up and formation this season

Image: Leicester City’s most-used line-up and formation this season

“When you drop points and the rest win, you see that they are coming, but we need balance at the moment. You cannot be so happy or so sad.

“If you get too nervous it could be dangerous; if you relax, it could be dangerous. You have to be mentally strong.”

A 1-0 win at Sunderland and a 2-2 draw at Hull took them into the international break on a relative high… but that was disrupted by the news the club had been charged for allegedly breaching the Premier League’s Profit and Sustainability Rules, meaning they could face a points deduction next season.

In March, Leicester said they were taking legal action against the Premier League and EFL after being charged with those alleged breaches.

To win on their return to action on Good Friday would have been a huge boost under the circumstances, but more frustration followed as Vardy missed four big chances in a game they eventually lost 1-0 to Bristol City.

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Jamie Vardy just couldn’t find the back of the net in Leicester’s clash against Bristol City.

April has been packed with surprises so far. Wins over Norwich and Birmingham looked to have got them right back on track, before successive 1-0 defeats to relegation candidates Millwall and Plymouth quickly put them back to square one.

But they get it over the line

Fortunately for them, Ipswich and Leeds were also faltering simultaneously. It was as if the promotion candidates were enjoying the thrill of the chase so much they did not want the race to stop.

Then they battled their way to a 2-1 win over West Brom. It felt like a monumental moment.

Leicester had, by no means, been at their best that afternoon, but they did what was needed and they were indebted to Hamza Choudhury as a result, with the midfielder’s three goal-line clearances having been proved pivotal.

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Hamza Choudhury saved Leicester City on three occasions against West Bromwich Albion with three superb clearances off the line.

“Every time you win, you see yourself closer and you celebrate,” said Maresca afterwards. “But it’s not over, we have to finish the job. It was only 12 months ago that we were relegated, it’s not easy to come back.”

At the beginning of last week, Leicester knew that, if Leeds lost to Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium, they would secure promotion with a win over Southampton the following night.

Daniel Farke’s side, however, beat Boro 4-3 in a thriller, meaning the most the Foxes could do was extend their advantage at the top to three points – which they did in stunning fashion, ending Saints’ flickering hopes of reaching the top two with a crushing 5-0 win.

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Highlights from the Championship clash between Leicester and Southampton.

In the end, Leicester achieved promotion without so much as kicking a ball and can now work towards winning the title when they travel to Deepdale to take on Preston on Monday night – live on Sky Sports Football – free of pressure.

What awaits them next season regarding the aforementioned PSR breaches is yet to be determined, but while their fate must be at the forefront of their mind, it can wait for tomorrow. Now is the time to celebrate.

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