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 By Tony Evans

How did Leicester go from fairy-tale champions to relegation threat?

Leicester City's achievement in winning the Premier League last season was remarkable. Their slide to 17th in the table, while defending their title, has been equally spectacular. There is a very real danger that Claudio Ranieri's side will be relegated.

How did the reigning champions find themselves in this predicament?

Familiarity breeds contempt

Last season, Leicester surprised opponents. In the first half of the 2015-16 campaign, rival teams were expecting Ranieri's side to be solid at the back, robust in midfield and a touch timid going forward. They were shocked by the way Leicester played.

The defence was organized and compact but with N'Golo Kante prowling the midfield and pouncing on any loose balls, the Foxes broke with breathtaking speed. Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez were set free in the blink of an eye. Teams came on to Leicester and were caught on the counter-attack.

This season, defences know not to play high lines against the champions. Instead, they sit deep and deny Vardy the room to run behind them. The only team to make the mistake of pouring forward against Leicester this season was Manchester City, and Ranieri's team romped to a 4-2 victory.

It was the only match that resembled last season's heroics. Not many other teams will make the same mistake.

A lack of class

Something magical happened at the King Power Stadium a year ago as a number of journeymen had career years. It's not strange for average players to have an exceptional season but for five or six of them to have standout campaigns at the same time is unusual.

Danny Drinkwater, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Simpson and Marc Albrighton all performed way beyond expectations. Kante's arrival from Caen had a huge impact. The combative, ball-winning midfielder made a huge difference to the side, regaining possession for the team and providing a platform for others. His summer sale to Chelsea meant Ranieri lost his only real top-class player.

Mahrez and Vardy looked even better than Kante on the title charge but it was deceptive. Vardy does two things really well: he runs behind defences and scores goals. When he is denied space, both these abilities are neutralized. It is probably too late for him, at 30 years old, to develop his range of threats.

The Algerian is much younger. The 25-year-old has time to grow as a player. For now, Mahrez is too predictable. Defenders know to keep the ball off his left foot. He needs to learn a new trick or two if he is to become a long-term star in the Premier League.

Winning made them relax

Most of Leicester's players treated winning the title as the towering achievement of their career. They're almost certainly right but the time to think that way is when they hang their boots up. Some of the squad have enjoyed the experience a little too much.

The fairy-tale season catapulted Leicester's players from relative unknowns to superstars. They were suddenly in demand from the media, becoming household names. They were not just players but celebrities and the winning experience has since caused some of the team to lose focus.

Before the crucial defeat by Swansea City some of the Leicester team were laughing and joking with Nathan Dyer, who was on loan at the King Power last season. They looked like they were preparing for a friendly match rather than a must-win relegation dogfight.

Success is as much mental as physical. At Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson, the dressing room was full of serial winners. When youngsters were blooded into the team and won their first title, the senior players ensured that success didn't distract those undergoing the experience for the first time.

In the Leicester squad, only Huth had been part of a title-winning team and he was a bit-part player at Chelsea. Even Ranieri, who should have been the guiding force, didn't have the experience of winning a title to pass on to his players. They were in uncharted territory. Little wonder that they ended up losing their way.

The squad is losing faith

The fixtures were kind to Leicester last season. They opened the campaign with what looked like (judging by the previous season) a number of relegation six-pointers. They went seven games before their first defeat, to Arsenal, and earned 12 points. As they racked up good results confidence in the manager and team-mates grew. Belief spread through the side. The second defeat, to Liverpool, didn't come until Boxing Day, just before the halfway mark in the season.

A year later, they endured a very different start. Leicester suffered three defeats in six games. Within the squad, faith in each other, and in Ranieri, faded.

At times like this, managers need to show leadership. They need to change their approach and draw the squad around them to unify the club. Ranieri has failed to do this. His team talks are no longer inspiring. If Leicester lose their next Premier League match, a home game to Liverpool, the Italian is in deep trouble. He could be sacked before the season ends.

One eye on Europe

The Champions League is the one thing that has energized Leicester. They breezed through a relatively easy group and the European performances have been among their best this season. It's also instructive to look at the league results immediately before continental action.

Before their first five group G games -- discounting the meaningless 5-0 defeat by Porto after Ranieri's team had already qualified -- Leicester lost four and drew one of the previous Premier League games, scoring just four and conceding 14. The team were clearly looking ahead to their foreign adventures.

Next week, Leicester travel to Sevilla in the knockout round of the Champions League. They warm up for the Spanish trip with an FA Cup tie away to Millwall. A giant-killing feat by the League One team would come as no surprise.

So what happens next?

Teams will continue to sit deep against Leicester and blunt their attacking weapons, meaning it may be hard for them to pick up many more Premier League wins. Ironically, their best chance of gaining points may come against Liverpool at home and Arsenal and City away. All three of these teams will attack Leicester and open games suit the Midlands side.

Yet the champions should be far too good to go down. A year ago on Valentine's Day, Leicester suffered a heartbreaking last-gasp defeat by Arsenal at the Emirates that proved to be a turning point in the season. The Foxes bounced back and produced one of the great romantic stories of Premier League history on their path to the title.

Twelve months on, there is no love around the King Power -- just a grim feeling of increasing desperation. Ranieri needs to arrest the slide quickly.

Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC on the Premier League. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.


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