The Hammers’ meeting with the Foxes on Sunday could decide which African stars make it into the Champions League next season
Only in this, the most surreal of seasons, would Sunday’s Premier League meeting between West Ham and Leicester City have Champions League implications.
It is a marker of the twilight zone reality which the world has lived over the last year, constrained as it has been by the outbreak of Covid-19 and the reaction to the pandemic. However, to speak of it only in those terms would be to downplay the brilliance that has characterized these two sides’ campaigns.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester have been less of a bolt out of the blue, however. Their decline upon resumption of football following the lockdown in 2020 is well-documented, as a combination of injuries and lost momentum conspired to eject them from the top four. This time around, the Foxes have applied those painful lessons quite impressively, compensating well for the losses of key personnel at crucial moments to stay the course.
Two key factors have underpinned their fortitude this season. The first is a mean away record.
Leicester City have lost just once on the road; only league leaders Manchester City have garnered more points on their travels. Rodgers’ wily Foxes give little away at the back, where a revolving cast of centre-backs is brilliantly protected by midfield sergeant Wilfred Ndidi.
The second is their adaptability in attack.
At various times this season, Leicester have been forced to do without Harvey Barnes, James Maddison, Jamie Vardy, Ayoze Perez and Cengiz Under. In spite of these absences, Rodgers has been able to get a tune in attack with intelligent tactical adjustments and selection choices.
The latest instance of this has seen Kelechi Iheanacho brought into the starting lineup to devastating, prolific effect, ensuring the Foxes never missed a step.
The Hammers’ rise has been a lot more sudden. Buoyed by clever recruitment and the savvy that veteran manager David Moyes brings, West Ham have punched well above their weight without necessarily looking out of place at any time.
The star of the show for the London club has been the solid midfield pivot of Declan Rice and Tomas Soucek, who have come in for a significant amount of praise on the back of their performances anchoring the side. The approach is very much predicated on solidity without the ball, before exploding forward on the break and using the pace and trickery of their attacking players.
The likes of Jesse Lingard and Jarrod Bowen have profited greatly within this framework, as have Said Benrahma and Arthur Masuaku, who have played slightly less frequent (but no less important) roles in the team.
Third against fourth promises an intriguing contest, as does the differing dynamic between these two teams.
Chelsea’s resurgence under Thomas Tuchel has now turned up the wick on the flame burning underneath the Hammers, and makes a win here almost imperative. While it is less a case of Moyes’ side losing steam than it is the Blues finding their groove again, missing out after such an impressive campaign so far will be bit of a wrench for West Ham.
It will be particularly so for Benrahma, who has struggled to make himself a real fixture in the starting eleven.
For all that the Algerian’s expansive style has occasionally jarred against Moyes’ more pragmatic approach, he is very much a showman at heart.
In other words, precisely the sort of player who would relish turning it on for Champions League nights, but who perhaps lacks a bit of intrinsic motivation.
Failing to parlay their epochal season into a place at Europe’s top table could therefore condition the light in which his signing is viewed.
Leicester have a bit more security in third spot, being the same distance from fourth as from second. For them, a return to the Champions League for the first time since their historic title win in 2016 would go some way toward persuading one of their topmost performers to stick with the project.
For the last couple of seasons, Ndidi’s commanding displays in midfield have made a move away from the King Power a matter of ‘when’ rather than ‘if’.
The player himself has played this down, and has been anchored by his degree program at De Montfort University anyway. However, qualifying for the Champions League would provide a sense of upward mobility that may just make trying for pastures new less attractive of a prospect.
The allure of Manchester United, for example, beyond a more lucrative pay package and historical prestige, is suddenly less compelling when contrasted with a bootstrapping climb to the top of the mountain. The satisfaction would be that much greater sticking with Leicester, as would the buy-in and commitment from Ndidi.
Ultimately, not only are the stakes high for the teams as a whole, but on an individual level there are a number of subplots that make for a deeply compelling watch, and that may come to shape the career trajectories of some of Africa’s finest Premier League performers.