The fairytale is complete. The movie has its perfect Hollywood ending. Now, what about that sequel?
Will it be Leicester: Back with a Vengeance or The Premier League Strikes Back?
The bookies – still reeling from the eye-watering financial gut-punch of a Leicester title win – are hedging their bets.
The Foxes are 33-1 to be champions again, 5-1 to finish in the top four, 15-8 to finish in the bottom half, and 25-1 to be relegated. When it comes to Leicester’s fortunes next season, it seems no scenario can be ruled out.
And then there’s the Champions League. Costly continental distraction, or new frontier to be conquered?
Here, BBC Sport examines what next season might hold for Leicester.
Some of the most important work of Leicester’s season could be done before a ball is kicked. Much will depend on whether Claudio Ranieri can keep hold of his star trio – midfielders N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, and striker Jamie Vardy. Between them, Mahrez and Vardy have scored or assisted 48 of Leicester’s 64 league goals this season and losing either would be a huge blow.
“The priority is keeping what they have got,” says former Blackburn and Norwich striker Chris Sutton. “When you take Vardy and Mahrez – who hold their goal threat and their creative threat – out of their team, they are still hard to beat but they will not have the same spark.”
However, with a Champions League campaign coming up, it is not just potential departures Leicester need to worry about. Ranieri desperately needs some new faces to bolster a squad that will otherwise be stretched to breaking point by the demands of fighting on another front.
“I think they need to add strength in depth,” says Sutton, who played in the competition for Blackburn in 1995. “They are certainly going to need a better quality of player squad-wise so people can come in and do the same job as the first-choice side. In particular, they need another striker with Vardy’s pace.”
So who might Leicester target? Will Ranieri stick with the prototype of hard-working, low-cost signings – such as Vardy, Kante and Danny Drinkwater – who have brought such success, or take a potentially once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to lure some galacticos to the East Midlands with the promise of Champions League football?
“It is important to bring the players with the same mentality, our mentality,” Ranieri has said. “It is too early to say we need five, six, seven or eight players.
“We don’t need the superstars. I want to improve the squad without big stars but the right players. It is important to chose very well for the lads because now, for me as well, the lads are my sons.”
|How Europe’s other unlikely champions have fared|
|Team||Champions in||Next season in league||Next season in Champions League|
|Lens (France)||1997-98||6th||Group stage|
|Nantes (France)||2000-01||10th||Second group stage|
|Wolfsburg (Germany)||2008-09||8th||Group stage|
|Montpellier (France)||2011-12||9th||Group stage|
Style of play
On the pitch, Leicester’s blueprint for success has been clear: shun possession, sit deep, and hit teams at pace on the counter-attack.
But can they repeat that approach next season now other teams are wise to their approach? The big beasts might be content to let Leicester sit back, but will the defending champions really be able to play on the break against the likes of Watford and West Brom?
“I don’t think they should change,” Sutton says. “They can’t rip it up because it is what their achievement has been based on.
“They have played to their strengths and it has worked. Vardy takes yards off centre-halves so why would you not use that threat? Robert Huth and Wes Morgan are not the quickest but they are superbly organised, defend the box well and read the game, so they will not want to get exposed.”
Can their approach work in the Champions League? In recent years, most of Europe’s successful sides have tended to monopolise possession, but Sutton believes Leicester could emulate the success of Jurgen Klopp’s counter-attacking Borussia Dortmund side, for example.
“I think their style of play will work in the Champions League too,” he says. “Why not? Their success of late is based on defending strongly and doggedly and being organised and having that threat on the break.”
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What about the manager? Ranieri’s calm authority and ability to take pressure off his players was a crucial ingredient in Leicester’s success, but never before in his 28-year managerial career has he defended a top-flight league title.
Ranieri, who is 65 in October, signed a three-year deal when he took over last year and has so far dismissed talk of an extension.
The Italian is experienced in the wiles of European football, having previously managed five different clubs in the Champions League. In 40 games in the competition, he has won 18 and lost 11, with Chelsea’s run to the semi-finals in 2004 his best result.
It was during his tenure at Stamford Bridge that Ranieri acquired the nickname ‘The Tinkerman’ for his habitual experimentation, but he has cast that reputation aside this season, making just 27 changes to his starting XI – the fewest in the league.
However, Sutton says the demands of European football may force him to revisit old habits.
“Ranieri will have to tinker to some extent,” he says. “He might need to prioritise, similar to how they did this season when they made lots of changes for the FA Cup.”
So, how will Leicester fare next season?
“It is going to be extremely difficult for them to have the same level of success because of the volume of games they will face and because so much of their success has been down to the continuity in Ranieri’s team selection,” Sutton says.
“But I can’t see them going into freefall if they have that same threat and that same way of playing. They defend strongly and if they keep Vardy, and keep their other key players then they will have that pace to get in behind.
“I still think they will be near the top of the league if they keep players fit and don’t sell.”
Southampton manager Ronald Koeman believes Leicester can acquit themselves well in the Champions League too.
“With the spirit and power they have in the team, Leicester are not going to be shown up in Europe,” Koeman – who twice won the European Cup as a player – told the Mirror.
“In fact, they will do well in the Champions League, even though the bigger clubs of England will have a better chance than them.”
Ranieri has warned next season will pose a wholly different challenge.
“The foundations are solid, but the Champions League is very hard,” he said. “It burns a lot of mental energy. It is not easy to play FA Cup and Charity Shield [as well].”
Still, even he can’t resist dreaming. “My career is fantastic,” he said. “But I want to achieve a little more if it is possible.”
Additional reporting by Chris Bevan.