Leicester’s Rare Opportunity

If Leicester City had earned one point through two matches to start their 2015/16 Premier League campaign, the footballing universe would have shrugged saying, “that sounds about right,” and moved on with their lives. This was, of course, before the Foxes upended the natural order of the universe and improbably finished atop the premier league table. Leicester’s slow start to their 2016/17 campaign has instead invoked an entirely different reaction, with many calling the club’s recent success a fluke and going so far as to suggest they could be the first English top-flight champion to be relegated the following season since Manchester City were sent down in 1937/38. 

Surely there is still plenty of time for Leicester to right their ship and put together another solid season. However, their title defense prospects are looking tougher by the day as perennial favorites Man United, Man City and Chelsea seem to have overcome locker room quarrels while pressing the right buttons in the transfer window to build fully-functioning superteams. Add formidable competition from Tottenham, Arsenal, Liverpool with the likes of Everton, Southampton and West Ham and Leicester might consider themselves extremely fortunate once again just to snag a spot in the Europa League.

That’s just the thing about Leicester though. They’re not a club that was ever expected to qualify for major European tournaments, at least not a mere two seasons after promotion from the second-division. Yet, fast forward to August 25, 2016 and the Foxes have their name on an index card inside a twistable ball in the same pot as Bayern Munich, FC Barcelona and Real Madrid for the Champions League group draw.  As crazy as that might still sound, Leicester find themselves in a position sought after by many of the world’s best clubs and must capitalize on it because they may never reach this stage again. For a team that would have otherwise been pleased with an upper mid-table finish; now is the time for Leicester to focus on making it out of the Champions League group stage.

Well-funded clubs with deep player pools often struggle to balance their domestic objectives with the burdens brought on by a run in the most prestigious tournament in club soccer. Leicester does not have the coffers to compete with these teams, nor do they boast Champions League quality depth. Leicester’s unique status as a champion underdog could be used to their advantage if they avoid inflicting unrealistic expectations upon themselves for their title defense. One of the reasons historically successful clubs like Napoli and Arsenal struggle to earn trophies is because sides of their stature are expected to perform well in all competitions and are mocked if they should fall out of the top four domestically or fail to make it out of the group stage in Europe. Managers who do well in one, but not the other, still live on the edge of unemployment if the mood of an owner or fanbase changes on a whim. The multi-million dollar talents on these teams are also expected to remain in peak physical and on-field form for at least 10 months out of the year. This applies to many teams competing in the Europa League (hey Man U) as well. Understanding that Leicester’s magical cup run will be essentially impossible to repeat will be key to their chances for succeeding in Europe.

In the most unlikely of scenarios, Claudio Ranieri’s squad finds itself in the same, yet reverse, position of Jose Mourinho and Manchester United. Where Leicester can use their lack of expectations to prepare for a more profitable Champions League campaign, Man United will similarly capitalize on their fanbase’s indifference towards the Europa League to prioritize a return to English dominance and, in turn, Champions League football.

The result of Thursday’s draw only crystallized Leicester’s opportunity to achieve something even the most audacious predictors would have thought was impossible in modern football. The club already knew before draw day that it would avoid the seven other teams in its pot that represent the world’s best clubs and also its Premier League rivals in the other pots. Still, a draw with Pot B options Atletico Madrid or Borussia Dortmund might have sent club representatives home from Monaco with their tail between their legs. Instead, Leicester drew Porto, Club Brugge and FC København in what is perhaps the least intimidating group in the tournament. It should be said that each of these clubs are really, really, reallllllly good and can all beat Leicester when playing at their best. Each will also be actively competing for their respective domestic titles concurrent with European fixtures. Leicester could gain a leg up on their competition if they make an effort to avoid gassing their best players in the weekly grind of the EPL.

Leicester won’t have to give up on the Premier League entirely to succeed in Europe, and have too much talent to worry about relegation at this point in the season. The Foxes have two matches (Swansea City and Liverpool) to regain their swagger before they embark on their European adventure. By that point they should have a better understanding of where they stand in this edition of the EPL and can decide where their priorities lie in their various competitions this season. Worst case scenario, they fight hard for 7-10th in the league table while getting swept out of their Champions League group. Best case scenario, they become content with 11-14th in the league but leave the world in awe as they advance to the quarterfinal in Europe, stockpiling millions of dollars along the way.

This approach may be the most sensible economic approach for the reigning champions as well. The way the EPL’s winnings are distributed ensures that each club receives a roughly equal share of the total pot. Despite Leicester’s heroic championship performance last season, they left the table as the league’s fifth-highest earner. Even Aston Villa left with more than £66 million, which was £44 million less than top-earners Arsenal. This is largely due to the Premier League distributing their massive TV deal earnings equally among each participating club.

Meanwhile, UEFA recently increased the amount of prize money offered to each participating Champions League club. Leicester will automatically receive €12.7 million for participating in the group stage and can help themselves to €1.5 million for each win they earn. Moving on past the group stage will allow Leicester to rake in at least €6 million more as they progress through the tournament. Moving on will also give the Foxes a greater share of the market pool, which accounts for 40% of UEFA’s distribution plan and is handed out in proportion to the value of each club’s TV market.

In other words, Leicester City is making BANK because of the Premier League TV deal and they are making BANK by participating in the Champions League. These are essentially fixed incomes though and if Leicester really want to swim in the cash monies, they ought to take the Champions League very, VERY seriously while they still can.

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