LONDON • Leicester's underachieving stars will be in the spotlight when the crisis-torn champions start life without Claudio Ranieri in a crucial Premier League clash against Liverpool today.
The Italian was ruthlessly sacked by Leicester's Thai owners on Thursday - only nine months after he masterminded their incredible title triumph, a move that was widely condemned by his fellow managers and Leicester fans.
His exit was widely suggested to have been linked to him losing the support of senior Leicester players including Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel.
But striker Vardy, who has scored just five league goals this term, has slammed claims that a breakdown in his relationship with Ranieri played a key role in the dismissal.
The England international wrote on Instagram: "Claudio has and always will have my complete respect. What we achieved together and as a team was the impossible. He believed in me when many didn't and for that I owe him my eternal gratitude.
"There is speculation I was involved in his dismissal and this completely untrue, unfounded and is extremely hurtful.
"The only thing we are guilty of as a team is underachieving which we all acknowledge both in the dressing room and publicly and will do our best to rectify."
Goalkeeper Schmeichel also insisted the Leicester players played no part in Ranieri's sacking.
"At no point have (the owners) taken our advice or asked for our consultation on the manager's future," he told Sky Sports.
"That is their job, their prerogative. We are players, we have to perform on the pitch, and that we haven't done this season."
If Leicester's spluttering stars have blood on their hands, Ranieri's exit means there will be nowhere to hide when Liverpool arrive at the King Power Stadium.
In contrast to last season, when Vardy set the tone with his prolific finishing and tireless work rate, the England international has been remarkably subdued for most of this term.
He is not the only one - Algerian winger Riyad Mahrez, voted player of the year last season, has been nowhere near as effective.
Whoever is to blame, Leicester are in deep trouble. They have lost their last five league matches without scoring a goal, crashed out of the FA Cup against third-tier Millwall - who played almost half the match with 10 men - and suffered a 2-1 Champions League last-16 first-leg defeat against Sevilla in Ranieri's final match.
On Saturday, Leicester dropped into the relegation zone after fellow strugglers Crystal Palace recorded a 1-0 win over Middlesbrough at Selhurst Park.
A defeat for the Foxes today would push them a step closer to becoming the first reigning English champions to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938.
Liverpool will not show any sympathy for Leicester as they battle to qualify for the Champions League, but boss Jurgen Klopp has warned his players to beware a backlash from the champions.
Klopp's fifth-placed team can move into the top four with a win.
"Does the sacking change a lot for us? Probably the players have to show a few things and they will want to," said the German. "You saw the Champions League game and the (Leicester) reaction after they scored: it was like two different games before and after they scored.
"Obviously they needed this goal to get confidence back. Maybe they can keep this and then we have to make it not too easy for them to bring it on the pitch or to not let their confidence grow."
LEICESTER V LIVERPOOL
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