LONDON • Leicester City's Premier League title defence could be officially over this weekend.
Should leaders Chelsea win at Burnley and the champions lose at Swansea later on Sunday, the Foxes will be 41 points behind the Blues with 39 points left to play for.
Yet it is avoiding relegation that has become Leicester's main objective this season. They are a point above the drop zone in 16th place and mired in a battle, with just two points separating the bottom six.
Claudio Ranieri's job as Leicester manager is still safe despite reports that the Italian has lost the dressing room. Striker Leonardo Ulloa has been the most outspoken, claiming he feels "betrayed" by Ranieri and vowing never to play for the club after a disagreement over his future.
But Leicester refused to allow the Argentinian to seal a move away from the King Power Stadium before the January transfer window shut and Ranieri must find a way to get the best out of Ulloa, whose aerial threat provides the manager's only alternative to Islam Slimani.
Ulloa - scorer of six goals in Leicester's title-winning campaign - has netted just once in 12 games this season. That he is not firing is among the main reasons why Leicester could go from champions to the Championship.
Leicester's woes are embodied by the dismal form of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, the attacking stars whose goals and assists catapulted the Foxes to the title last May.
Vardy, Leicester's top scorer last season with 24 goals, has found the net only five times since the start of the campaign. Mahrez had 17 goals and 11 assists last term, but the Algeria winger has scored only three times and created just two goals since the start of this season.
Midfielder N'Golo Kante, Leicester's other stand-out player last season, is now pivotal to Chelsea's success. And the club have failed to plug the hole created by his departure, in part because they also lost head of recruitment Steve Walsh to Everton after last season's triumph.
Leicester last season were clearly defined - low block, lightning counter-attacks, 4-4-2.
But without Kante, who has led the league in tackles made in the last two seasons, Ranieri has not found another system that works.
When asked recently why Leicester are not the same, forward Shinji Okazaki's reply was "Kante". He added: "We are still searching for the best way to play (without him)."
Kante's replacement Nampalys Mendy has been hampered by injury since he signed from Nice. And with Daniel Amartey an unconvincing stop-gap, Leicester splashed out £15 million (S$26.6 million) to sign Wilfred Ndidi last month.
Their recent transfer activity has been patchy. Slimani, a club-record £30 million acquisition from Sporting Lisbon, has been a useful addition, his six goals to date including winners against Porto and West Ham. But Ahmed Musa has not convinced, Ron-Robert Zieler has looked a less than capable deputy for Kasper Schmeichel and Luis Hernandez lasted just half a season before being sold to Malaga.
But if there is one statistic they want to avoid, it is this: Becoming the first English title-holders to be relegated since Manchester City in 1938.
THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE