January brings big test of Leicester's Champions League credentials - but they have what it takes

It is easy to forget that before the season started, the mood at Leicester City was far from triumphant.

Their incredible capitulation in the second half of the 2019/20 campaign - in which they surrendered an 'unassailable' lead and dropped out of the top four on the final day - was still fresh in supporters' minds, while their Europa League commitments were expected to hamper their domestic form.

Flash forward to the present and after 17 games Leicester are just one point shy of table topping Liverpool and only six worse off than they were at this stage last term.

Leicester have impressed with their start to the season | Michael Regan/Getty Images

However, this is a very different league to last season. This time last year, Liverpool, Leicester and Manchester City had already built up a sizeable cushion on the teams below them. This time around, tenth placed West Ham are just seven points off top spot, with all the sides above them harbouring title ambitions of varying feasibility.

In good news for fans of a more easily followed Premier League narrative, the next few weeks should see the table start to slowly resemble its final form. Where Leicester will end up finishing is far from certain but they can make a statement of their top four ambitions during an action packed month ahead.

After taking on Stoke City in the FA Cup on Saturday, in what broadcasters should be dubbing the Robert Huth derby, the Foxes host sixth placed Southampton and ninth placed Chelsea back to back. They then travel to seventh placed Everton, before their January comes to a close with a visit from Leeds.

The first trio of games all come against teams who are just a few points behind them. Thus, the rewards for chalking up three wins - or even just avoiding defeat - would be lavish. But the Foxes will need to improve on their less than impressive home record.

Of their five losses this season, four have come at home. The key problem in defeats to West Ham, Aston Villa, Fulham and Everton was their failure to create chances. Villa aside, the Foxes enjoyed over 60% possession in all these encounters but could not break down their oppositions' low blocks after falling behind.

In this sense, Leicester can feel pretty confident about their home fixtures this month. It is hard to envisage Southampton or Leeds travelling to the King Power Stadium and deploying these sort of defensive tactics.

Wilfred Ndidi's return to form has been a jot to behold this season | Pool/Getty Images

The high pressing deployed by the pair is likely to leave plenty of space for Leicester to exploit if they can force turnovers, which they have done as effectively as any Premier League side this season, ranking in the top five for most tackles and interceptions.

In full flow, their counter attacking is some of the most attractive in Europe with the pace of Harvey Barnes and James Justin, combined with the guile of James Maddison and Youri Tielemans making an irresistible match. Leicester have already subjected Leeds to a dominant 4-1 defeat this season and there is little reason they cannot showcase the same transitional threat later this month.

As for Chelsea, well, they just aren't playing very well are they? It may seem crazy considering how much Frank Lampard spent in the summer, but on current form, a trio of Ndidi, Maddison, and Tielemans seems far more appealing that the cluster of midfield madness that the Blues have subjected us to in recent weeks.

Everton provide probably the sternest test of all this month. Having already beaten Leicester once this season, Carlo Ancelotti will be confident of repeating the trick but the Foxes should not be fearful. As poor as their home record has been, their brilliant away form has made up for it.

No side have earned more points away from home than them this season (22) and their only defeat on the road was against leaders Liverpool. Their fantastic record has included some famous scalps as well, with Manchester City, Tottenham, Leeds and Arsenal all being bested on their travels.

If you are still not convinced that January is set to be a season defining month for Leicester, the news that Ricardo Pereira is returning to full fitness imminently should do the trick.

Leicester could avenge the ghosts of last season by securing Champions League qualification | Michael Regan/Getty Images

The flying right-back has carved out a reputation as one of the world's best right-backs since arriving in the East Midlands back in 2018 and having him fit and firing will increase Leicester's already potent threat on the counter.

Last season, the start of 2020 was when the wheels on the Foxes' season fell apart. This time around, it has the potential to be the period in which their Champions League charge starts to accelerate.

Source : 90min