LONDON – The champion of England plays a League One side in the F.A. Cup fifth round Saturday. Few are predicting a surprise result as hardly anyone thinks Leicester City will beat Millwall.
So poorly is Leicester playing that it would be something of a shock if it came away from The Den with a win. Millwall has everything Leicester doesn’t — spirit, the fans behind the manager, a settled team and it is in good form, unbeaten in 12 games, having not conceded a goal in over seven hours. Next Wednesday, Leicester travels to Seville for what will almost certainly be a Champions League pummeling.
Leicester is the only team in the top six divisions of English football without a league goal in 2017 — over 10 hours. It is one point above the relegation zone and manager Claudio Ranieri said: “We have two problems — in defense and in attack.” There is a third — midfield. In fact, the whole team is one big problem.
Nine players who were regulars in winning the title started the 2-0 loss at Swansea, its fifth straight defeat. Right now Leicester is there for the taking. It isn’t just losing, it is being well beaten even if the score lines do not suggest a thumping. Leicester is running out of hope and ideas. The players look tired both physically and mentally. The team is unable to repel early attacks, a defense that stood firm a year ago is now looking old and tired.
The impression is that the team knew last season was a once-in-a-lifetime achievement, never to be repeated. The players milked it for all they could, with book contracts, lifestyle magazine interviews and improved deals, while Thai owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha bought each member of the squad a £100,000 BMW i8 sports car.
Their fame and fortune assured, too many players have taken their foot off the gas. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the attacking superstars of the title-winning team, have been ineffectual. Last year the pair scored 41 goals between them, with Vardy netting 24; this season Vardy has five goals (including a hat trick), and Mahrez three. In comparison,Millwall’s strike trio of Steve Morison, Lee Gregory and Aiden O’Brien have scored 31 goals for the Lions to see the club in the League One playoff positions.
Ranieri’s press conferences are virtually the same after every game with only the name of the opposition changed. Two years ago many of the current side found the inner strength and determination to embark on a run of victories to avoid what had appeared likely relegation. There is no evidence to show another great escape can be executed because there is a widespread lack of belief and confidence as Leicester lumbers toward two cup exits in five days with relegation a growing probability.
Japan international Shinji Okazaki said: “Last season we knew that, if we defended well for the whole game, we had every chance of winning matches. That was a huge strength for us, but at the moment the tide is against us and we’ve started losing quite a few games. Our self-belief may be waning slightly. However, this is where we must start showing our true potential as a team.”
Relegation worries are on hold for a few days as apart from Millwall, next Wednesday Leicester travels to Spain for a Champions League match. Ranieri has been selecting what amounts to a second XI for F.A. Cup matches and it will be more of the same at The Den because the Italian is running out of options.
Last summer’s signings have hardly boosted the squad. Left-back Luiz Hernandez, brought in from Sporting Gijon, could not force his way into the side and is now with Malaga. Ahmed Musa, who joined from CSKA Moscow for £16 million, has only scored twice in the league in 18 outings. Islam Slimani, the big money signing who cost £30 million from Sporting Lisbon, has six goals. Nampalys Mendy,signed to replace N’Golo Kante — a nigh on impossible task — has been out injured since August.
The match is a 17,000 sellout and in full flow there are few more intimidating grounds in English football than a packed Den. Millwall has beaten Bournemouth and Watford in previous rounds, who paid the price for multi-team changes. Neil Harris, the Millwall manager, expects Ranieri to continue tinkering with his lineup Saturday.
He said: “Claudio has rotated his squad throughout the competition. I think it’s a sign of their mentality — it (the F.A. Cup) is not one that is really important to them. He’ll want to have a team fresh for Seville and is also concentrating on staying in the Premier League. We will expect changes from a full-strength side.”
Millwall’s turbulent history means it will rarely have too much neutral support, while the Old Kent Road area southeast London is approached with caution by outsiders. “No one likes us, we don’t care,” is The Den anthem, yet Harris, the club’s all-time leading goal scorer, has fashioned a team that people are beginning to like.
In the F.A. Cup everyone likes the underdog. It’s just difficult to know which team that is Saturday.
Writing on the wall: Arsene Wenger must leave Arsenal at the end of the season. He looked a broken man after the 5-1 humiliation by Bayern Munich, someone who had no answers to yet another European meltdown. The suspicion remains that the Arsenal board will leave it to Wenger whether he renews his contract, which runs out at the end of this season, but a manager who has given so much to Arsenal and English football is in danger of being remembered as a failure rather than a pioneer. He should put himself out of more misery.
In his mind he knows the decision he will make and it is best he tells the board soon so it can search for its first new manager in 21 years. At 67 and a multimillionaire, Wenger loves Arsenal, but he should not put himself through another season of attempting to do what he has failed to do for the last 13 years, which is to make Arsenal realistic title contender rather than serial pretender. Even Wenger loyalists are running out of excuses.
On Monday, Wenger leads Arsenal against National Conference team Sutton United and its Gander Green Lane (capacity 5,015) in the F.A. Cup. Another cup defeat to part-timers would be the endgame for Wenger.
Creative: If there is a prize for the best chant of the season, Cardiff City supporters at the 4-3 win at Derby on Valentine’s Day must be in the frame.
“We’re only here ’cause we’re single,” they sang.
Who said the age of romance is dead?
Christopher Davies was a longtime Premier League correspondent for the London Daily Telegraph.