Where on earth do Leicester City go from here? The European adventure is over and their supporters have just a few more weeks to sing “Champions of England, we know what we are”. Life then goes back to normal for a club who have been living the dream for the past 12 months. Except no one at Leicester is willing to accept normality any more. “Now we’ve had a taste of it, we want more,” Danny Drinkwater said.
That message echoed around late on Tuesday night, long after Atlético Madrid had extinguished any hopes of adding another chapter to their fairytale. There was a mixture of pride and disappointment among the players after a 2-1 aggregate defeat against a club who have reached the semi-finals for the third time in four years, but no suggestion whatsoever that they have heard the Champions League anthem for the last time.
Wes Morgan, the captain, did not hesitate when he was asked whether it was realistic to think that Leicester could play in the competition again. “Yes, absolutely,” he replied. “This season has been more downs than ups, but I feel we’ve turned it around and we’re coming good now. If we had shown the same form all season that we’ve shown of late, we could be in a Champions League spot again.”
Whether Morgan is being overly optimistic or not, the truth is that it is genuinely hard to know where they belong these days. Look back over the past two years and it has been a wild graph of highs and lows, from the great escape during Nigel Pearson’s reign to that extraordinary Premier League title success with Claudio Ranieri. Throw a Champions League quarter-final into the mix this season, and their flirtation with relegation before a dramatic upturn in results following the promotion of Craig Shakespeare, and it is difficult to place Leicester in football’s pecking order.
What is clear is that the club have a critical period ahead and some important decisions to make. The first big call revolves around the manager and whether Shakespeare, who has won six of his 10 games in charge, should be given the job beyond the end of the season. Everything points to that being the case at the moment, with Shakespeare highly regarded by Leicester’s owners and open to having talks sooner rather than later.
Conversations about the playing squad will be more complicated and Leicester know that they cannot afford to repeat the mistakes they made last summer, when their recruitment was desperately poor. They spent the best part of £60m on Islam Slimani, Nampalys Mendy and Ahmed Musa alone, none of whom could be described as a success, so much so that it would no surprise if they all moved on before the new season starts.
The spotlight will fall on Jon Rudkin, the director of football, and Eduardo Macia, the club’s head of recruitment, to get the right players in this summer. While central defence is seen as a priority – Middlesbrough’s Ben Gibson is among those under consideration – Leicester’s transfer business will also be dependent on outgoings and their ability to retain their most influential players. Morgan suggested “everyone wants to stay” when he was asked whether the club could hold on to their names, yet Leicester are no longer in a position to dangle the Champions League carrot as an incentive.
Arguably the biggest concern is Kasper Schmeichel, who is one of the few players to have enhanced his reputation during a difficult season. Schmeichel, 30, signed a five-year contract last summer and has never given any indication that he is looking to move on, yet it is anticipated that there will be interest from leading clubs in a goalkeeper whose distribution is as impressive as his shot-stopping. Everton will be in the market for a new No1 in the summer, both Manchester clubs could be in a similar position and the goalkeeper merry-go-round in the Premier League may not stop there.
On the face of it, the player most likely to leave is Riyad Mahrez. When Mahrez signed a new deal last summer, ending months of transfer speculation that had little foundation to it, there was a school of thought that Leicester would not stand in his way if he wanted to leave 12 months later, yet the Algerian has been a huge disappointment this term and it remains to be seen whether his form will discourage the top clubs from pursuing him, especially as his asking price would be high.
Two of the other key assets are aged 20 and it appears likely that Leicester will need to convince both Ben Chilwell and Demarai Gray that they will play more often next season in order to keep them out of the clutches of others. The fact that Chilwell – a target for Liverpool last summer – was introduced at half-time in the second leg against Atlético provides a measure of Shakespeare’s faith in him. Gray, on the other hand, did not feature and the impression is that the winger is frustrated at his lack of opportunities.
It will, in short, be a busy summer and one in which they will go back to reality in many respects. The passports can be put away for now as staff, players and fans contemplate a more mundane schedule without Champions League football on the calendar. The memories, however, will live on and provide stories to talk about for years to come.
“It has been an incredible journey,” Morgan said. “I’m not sure who thought we could get this far, but we believed in ourselves. To get all the way through to the quarter-finals in our Champions League debut season is a massive achievement. It’s over now, but we’re proud of what we’ve done and can leave the competition with our heads held high.”