Soccer

Jamie Vardy symbolizing decline of champion Leicester

  • Leicester City's Jamie Vardy stands dejected after Sunderland's Jermain Defoe scored his side's second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Sunderland and Leicester City, at the Stadium of Light, in Sunderland, England, Saturday Dec. 3, 2016. (Scott Heppell/PA via AP)

    Leicester City's Jamie Vardy stands dejected after Sunderland's Jermain Defoe scored his side's second goal during the English Premier League soccer match between Sunderland and Leicester City, at the Stadium of Light, in Sunderland, England, Saturday Dec. 3, 2016. (Scott Heppell/PA via AP)  (The Associated Press)

  • Leicester City's Jamie Vardy, right, battles for the ball with Sunderland's Papy Djilobodji during their English Premier League soccer match at Selhurst Park, London, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (Olly Greenwood/PA via AP)

    Leicester City's Jamie Vardy, right, battles for the ball with Sunderland's Papy Djilobodji during their English Premier League soccer match at Selhurst Park, London, Saturday, Dec. 3, 2016. (Olly Greenwood/PA via AP)  (The Associated Press)

  • Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri gestures during a Champions League group G soccer match between FC Porto and Leicester City at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)

    Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri gestures during a Champions League group G soccer match between FC Porto and Leicester City at the Dragao stadium in Porto, Portugal, Wednesday, Dec. 7, 2016. (AP Photo/Paulo Duarte)  (The Associated Press)

After spending last season as one of the key forces behind Leicester's rise to the Premier League title, Jamie Vardy is now the symbol of the team's alarming decline.

The rough diamond unearthed in non-league soccer helped power Leicester to its first English title by scoring 24 goals. Defenses struggled to contain him as he scored in a record 11 consecutive Premier League games from August to November 2015.

Now, the striker can barely get a shot on target and Leicester is struggling because of it.

If Vardy fails to score against Manchester City on Saturday, it will be 11 consecutive games without a Premier League goal. And if results go against Leicester, the team could start the game in the relegation zone.

The 29-year-old Vardy rejected the chance to join perennial top-four team Arsenal to see if Leicester could build on its fairytale season. That has happened in Europe, with Leicester qualifying for the round of 16 in its Champions League debut as group winners.

Leicester collected as many points in the six group games as in the 14 Premier League matches so far: 13.

Vardy didn't find the net once in five European games before being rested in Wednesday's 5-0 loss to FC Porto, which didn't affect Leicester's status as group winners but was a high-profile humiliation.

Vardy has only contributed two Premier League goals and managed a mere four shots on target in the competition dominated by Leicester so unexpectedly last season. What's also been noticeable is how Vardy is no longer linking so effectively with Riyad Mahrez — if at all — as the supply line for scoring opportunities has fractured.

Unless the symbiotic relationship between Vardy and Mahrez rejuvenates in the second half of the season, Leicester is in real danger of seeing its three-season stay in the Premier League end on the first anniversary of its title triumph in May.

"Of course he's not happy," Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said of the central England club's Thai owner. "No one at the club is."

The one player Leicester couldn't persuade to stay offseason is being sorely missed. N'Golo Kante produced a league-leading 175 tackles and 156 interceptions last season before joining Chelsea. The midfielder would seem to perform the work of two men when he was on the field and without him Leicester's defense has seemed easier to break through.

Many at the club have publicly attributed the drop in domestic form to the desire to impress on the continent. Now there are no distractions for the next two months before the Champions League knockout phase begins.

The visit of Manchester City is a timely reminder about the fate of champions. City was the last team to follow a title triumph with relegation, far back in 1938.

City's current mission is coping for the next four games without Sergio Aguero, with Kelechi Iheanacho replacing the banned striker in the starting lineup. City is fourth in the standings, four points behind Chelsea.

___

SWANSEA vs. SUNDERLAND

With only one win in seven games as Swansea manager, Bob Bradley has seen his new team slide to the bottom. The American's dire introduction to the Premier League was heightened when his disjointed team lost 5-0 at Tottenham last week.

Is Bradley's job already under threat?

"You go in every day and at any moment the club can say 'We need to make a change,'" Bradley said Thursday. "But if you worry about that, the players will spit you out fast. They will see through you. If I am telling the players they have to look adversity in the eye and have some courage, then I have got to do that, too."

Bradley shouldn't give up hope. He only has to look to Sunderland, the team that was last when he took charge in south Wales and plays Swansea on Saturday. Sunderland has hauled itself to a point from safety by winning three of its last four games under David Moyes.

___

BURNLEY vs. BOURNEMOUTH

There's a meeting Saturday between two of the league's four English managers.

What is surprising is that only Bournemouth manager Eddie Howe, rather than Burnley counterpart Sean Dyche, was seriously linked with the England coaching job when it came up twice this year.

In its second-ever top-flight campaign, Bournemouth is 10th in the 20-team standings after beating Liverpool last weekend by winning 4-3 from 3-1 down.

Burnley, after making an instant return to the Premier League, is 15th.