By a quirk of fate Dean Smith is in familiar territory. Three years ago, at an empty London Stadium because of the pandemic, he preserved Aston Villa’s Premier League status on the final day of the season courtesy of a draw against David Moyes’s West Ham. Moyes and West Ham again stand in the way of Smith securing safety and, eerily, Everton also host Bournemouth, as they did at the climax of that strange season.
This time, however, the scenario is much simpler – and there will be supporters to provide mood music. “Can you create scoreboard pressure on other teams? I don’t know,” the interim Leicester manager says. “We just have to concentrate on trying to win the game.”
Supporters will doubtless have spent the past couple of days studying the permutations, but for Leicester the scores at Goodison Park or Elland Road are in effect meaningless if they do not do their bit. Leicester must beat West Ham and hope Everton do not beat Bournemouth to survive. Leeds will avoid relegation if they beat Tottenham and Leicester and Everton both lose.
The frustrating thing for Smith is in recent weeks Leicester have squandered chances to alleviate the pressure. But now it all boils down to Sunday and even victory may prove insufficient.
Smith took charge of Leicester with seven weeks and eight games of the season to run. He has since won one match, at home to Wolves, taking six points from a possible 21. Until Monday’s stalemate at Newcastle, Leicester had not kept a clean sheet in 22 matches.
“When you first come in you look at games and I looked at Manchester City, Liverpool and Newcastle and knew they were going to be tough to get points out of,” he says. “I expected us probably to win our home games and nick points away from home, with probably the exception of Liverpool. We are a few points short of where I expected to be and that’s why it has come down to the last one.”
It is set to be an anxious afternoon for all concerned. Smith, who could be without the midfielder Wilfred Ndidi because of a hamstring problem, acknowledges the importance of his players coping with the occasion mentally.
“It will be an emotional day at Goodison, as it will at the King Power and Elland Road,” the former Norwich manager says. “Our job is to see through those emotions and think clearly. A lot of the players have played in high-profile games before, so they know what it’s about and what they have to do.”
Leicester’s destiny is out of their hands and Smith will be powerless when it comes to refereeing decisions. He was incensed Bruno Guimarães got away with only a yellow card after a poor challenge on Boubakary Soumaré early on at St James’ Park and sent Professional Game Match Officials Limited (PGMOL) a text message to convey his bewilderment. A repeat incident could have greater ramifications on Sunday.
“I’m a little bit dumbfounded how PGMOL found the VAR decision not to intervene correct, but, hey-ho, it helps their statistics I suppose,” Smith says. “If that challenge is allowed this weekend, there’s a case for negligence because that wasn’t allowed in 1980.”
Smith insists he will not be plugged into goings-on elsewhere, unlike in 2011 when he was in charge of Walsall. Smith sent his then scout Martin Ling, whom he worked alongside at Leyton Orient, to London Road to feed back updates with Walsall’s League One status in the balance. Walsall would have been relegated had they lost and Dagenham & Redbridge secured a point at Peterborough.
Everton Points 33 Goal difference -24 Goals scored 33
A win guarantees survival. A draw will be enough if Leicester fail to win and Leeds do not win by at least three goals. A defeat will suffice if Leicester and Leeds fail to win.
Leicester Points 31 Goal difference -18 Goals scored 49
West Ham, home
Need a victory to have hope of avoiding relegation. That will suffice if Everton draw or lose.
Leeds Points 31 Goal difference -27 Goals scored 47
Must win to have a chance of staying up. If Leicester then fail to win and Everton lose, Leeds will be safe. If Leicester fail to win and Everton draw, Leeds will survive if they beat Spurs by three or more goals.
“I phoned him up because we were losing 3-1,” Smith says. “We got it back to 2-1 but [Alex] Oxlade-Chamberlain came on and scored the third [for Southampton]. I phoned him from the bench and said: ‘What’s going on?’ He went: ‘Well, I’m in the car, they’re losing 5-0, you’ve stayed up.’ It was quite a nice phone call, that.”
How Smith would settle for a similar feeling come Sunday evening. A significant turnover of players is likely regardless of whether Leicester retain their top-flight status. James Maddison and Harvey Barnes will probably move and for Youri Tielemans, who scored a brilliant winning goal when the club won the FA Cup two years ago, it will be a farewell to the King Power Stadium.
“They’ll know, the ones who have been here a long time and whose contracts are running out, that they want to leave on a high, if they are to leave,” Smith says. “The players understand the pressures. They know how important it is for them, so they don’t need me to keep going on to them.”