Leicester’s spluttering defence of the Premier League title suffered another blow after they were held to a 0-0 draw by Southampton at the King Power Stadium on Sunday.
Retaining the title always looked like a bridge too far for Claudio Ranieri’s side, but the autumn leaves have hardly started falling from the trees before the Foxes appear to have fallen out of contention.
This was another subdued performance from the champions, who lacked the ferocious work rate that carried them to the title, and they have now won only two of their seven league games this term.
Leicester are already marooned in mid-table, 10 points behind leaders Manchester City, and challenging for a top four finish might be the limit of their ambitions as reality bites after an incredible 12 months.
At least Europe still offers the chance for more miracles and Leicester defeated Porto in midweek to secure a second successive victory in their maiden Champions League campaign.
Leicester had already suffered three league defeats this season — as many as they lost in the entirety of last season’s fairytale campaign — and Southampton looked the more confident side as a result.
Saints boss Claude Puel rested a host of key players for Thursday’s trip to Israel for a goalless draw against Hapoel Be’er-Sheeva in the Europa League and the decision to keep his stars fresh was rewarded with a lively display.
England interim manager Gareth Southgate was in the stands before announcing his first squad for the forthcoming World Cup qualifiers against Malta and Slovenia.
Southgate might have been checking on Charlie Austin and the in-form Southampton striker had an early chance with a header that was directed too close to Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Austin, who had five goals in his previous four appearances, was off target with another headed effort from a Dusan Tadic cross.
– Frenetic –
But Austin came much closer moments later when he peeled away from Christian Fuchs with a clever run and tried an ambitious shot from an acute angle that beat Schmeichel, only to cannon to safety off the far post.
Jamie Vardy should have put Leicester ahead after a typically frenetic piece of harrying from the England striker forced a weak backpass from Virgil van Dijk.
Vardy seized on the loose ball but as he tried to round Southampton goalkeeper Fraser Forster, Oriol Romeu got back to block his shot before throwing his body in the way of Islam Slimani’s effort from the rebound.
Leicester’s lethal cutting edge had deserted them and Riyad Mahrez, last season’s player of the year, shot woefully wide from the edge of the area just before half-time.
It was Southampton who forced the pace again after the interval and Nathan Redmond was close to finishing off another incisive move, but the winger’s low shot lacked the power to beat Schmeichel from close-range.
Austin wasted a golden opportunity to break the deadlock after Fuchs and Robert Huth allowed van Dijk’s pass to elude them and run to the Saints forward, who needlessly opted for an extravagant chip which Schmeichel easily saved.
Ranieri tried to pep Leicester up by replacing Vardy and Marc Albrighton and Danny Drinkwater immediately brought Forster into action with a stinging long-range effort.
Suddenly, there was more menace about Leicester and Slimani’s header was saved low down by Forster before Shinji Okazaki glanced just wide.
Yet James Ward-Prowse should have won it for Southampton in the closing stages, only to fire over from a good position.