Not even the sound of the famous Champions League anthem at the King Power Stadium will make the achievements of Leicester City over the past year seem any less surreal. In fact, if anything the tones of European football’s most prestigious club competition at the home of the Foxes will only underline just how fantastical 2016 has been for them.
But when Claudio Ranieri’s side line up to take on Europe’s best - whoever their first group game may be against - they will most likely be missing a few of the figures who got them there in the first place. They’ll certainly be missing N’Golo Kante, the French midfielder who was sold to Chelsea for £30 million last week.
The news of Kante’s departure was swiftly followed by reports that Riyad Mahrez - the playmaking mastermind behind Leicester’s sensation run to the title last season - had rejected the offer of a new contract at the club was is considered an exit of his own.
And so it’s now entirely plausible that Leicester City’s team may fall apart before it has even had the chance to defend its supremacy. Before it has had the opportunity to prove that the 2015/16 season was more than just a wonderful fluke. Their starting lineup is being torn apart, with Europe’s biggest and best clubs dragging them in every which direction.
If Leicester’s triumph just two months ago was primarily attributable to the trio of Kante, Mahrez and Jamie Vardy, it seems likely that only the latter will remain for the start of the 2016/17 campaign. Given what has happened since signing a new four contract with the Foxes just a few weeks ago, even Vardy must be considering his long-term future at the King Power Stadium.
Kante’s loss in itself is significant enough. The Frenchman is one of the most accomplished anchoring midfielders in the game right now, demonstrating his quality for France during the summer’s European Championships. His rise in the space of 12 months has been remarkable, but not unwarranted.
While Mahrez and Vardy made more headlines last season, it was Kante who provided Leicester with a platform in the centre of the field, giving the Foxes’ attacking talents freedom in the final third. Without Kante Leicester no longer have that platform. Replacing the Frenchman might prove impossible.
It’s a symptom of modern football that a team like Leicester City, who just won the Premier League title a matter of weeks ago, should be ripped apart before their true potential is achieved. We’ll never know how last season’s English champions would have fared against Europe’s best in the Champions League because that side no longer exists. Such predictions can only be judged against the hypothetical now.
Of course, this isn’t to say that Leicester will stumble on the continent. Over £30 million has been spent on the signing of Ahmed Musa, Nampalys Mendy, Ron-Robert Zieler and Luis Hernandez as the club attempts to stay at the top of the English game. Their transfer market strategy has been impeccable up until this point, so perhaps they will continue to strike gold heading into the new season.
But Ranieri must consider the impact inflicted on his team’s identity by the loss of Kante, and the looming loss of Mahrez. The Italian might have to devise a new game plan in what will be the most competitive Premier League season on record. Leicester City have a task on their hands simply to hold their own, never mind defend their title.
Not so long ago Ranieri spoke optimistically about keeping hold of his best players over the summer. That was somewhat naive of the experienced Italian, given the riches on offer elsewhere, but he mustn’t linger on what is largely outside his control. Leicester’s team is being torn apart, but that doesn’t mean they cannot build a new one.