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 By Ian Darke

Leicester City's fairy tale is turning into a horror story

Champions in distress.

The 5,000-to-1 winners of the Premier League title only nine months ago, Leicester City find themselves only one point above the relegation zone. They looked in a sorry state losing 0-3 at home to Manchester United at the weekend, barely laying a glove on Jose Mourinho's team.

So how has this happened?

There was always going to be a hangover of sorts after last season's dizzying success. And, of course, the loss of N'Golo Kante to Chelsea, where he continues to excel, has left a gaping hole in midfield.

But Leicester City's problems run deeper than that. So deep, in fact, that Claudio Ranieri, voted World Coach of the Year not long ago, is saying: "If the players don't believe in me anymore, they must go to the chairman and ask for a change. But I think we are still together."

"Think"? That sounds as if Ranieri isn't quite sure. Odd, too, that he should raise the subject of his relationship with the players.

Sacking Ranieri would be like shooting Bambi.

What he achieved last season defied belief and will be talked about in 50 years' time as football's greatest upset, a story that caught the imagination of the world. Recreating it was always going to be like trying to catch lightning in a bottle -- for a second time, no less -- but the decline has been stark. It's hard to think of one Leicester player, with the exception of the exciting youngster Demarai Gray, who is playing better this season than last.

Jamie Vardy, 24-goal poster boy of that unforgettable championship run, looks lost. The man who scored in a record 11 successive games on the way to the title has been on target in only three league games this season. The elegant Riyad Mahrez, a transfer target of so many clubs last summer, has been only a fitful presence.

Of the new signings, Nampalys Mendy looks lightweight in midfield; young Wilfred Ndidi is having to learn fast; and striker Ahmed Musa has not done enough to get in the starting lineup. The obviously potent goal scorer and record signing Islam Slimani has not played yet in 2017 because of his commitments to Algeria in the African Cup of Nations, where he suffered the reoccurrence of a groin injury.

More seriously, with Kante gone, Ranieri has little or no cover for his suddenly suspect old defensive rocks Wes Morgan and Robert Huth. In the past four games, Leicester have lost 0-3 to Chelsea, Southampton and United.

Leicester City's magic under Claudio Ranieri has all but disappeared at the King Power Stadium.

The confidence and tight-knit unity that took them to the title has been replaced by nervousness, loss of belief and a little fear. Just as everything broke their way last season, nothing much is going right now. Witness Burnley's blatantly handled late winner against them the other night. Then there the team's was a standoff with Leonardo Ulloa over lack of game time and stories of baffling tactical switches by Ranieri.

As always in this kind of trying situation, there is speculation that one or two players have become a little "Billy Big Time" after last season's blaze of publicity and the fat contracts that followed. Those accusations might be very unfair. There is no sign that the players are not trying. It is just that nothing seems to work.

In the words of an old Gordon Lightfoot hit: "The feeling's gone and I just can't get it back."

But Leicester can't afford to sit around sulking. Their rivals in the Premier League intensive care unit are showing distinct signs of a pulse. Keeper Kasper Schmeichel has issued a rallying call, declaring that the players will fight to stay up. It is now a question of whether they are good enough to do it.

That Hollywood movie about Vardy and Leicester -- if it ever gets made -- could have a nasty twist on the final reel.

Ian Darke, who called games for the network during the 2010 and 2014 World Cups, is ESPN's lead soccer voice in the U.S. Reach him on Twitter @IanDarke.

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