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English Premier League

Leicester City 2015/16 Premier League Season Preview

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It all seemed too good to be true at the start of summer for The Foxes as they survived the drop with a tremendous run of results. The Midlands club first lost Pearson’s son and other members of the youth team after a racist scandal, then they lost Pearson himself after an ongoing tense period between himself and the powers above. Now with Claudio Ranieri at the helm, they will want to build on survival and attempt to establish themselves in the top flight. However, it may just prove too big a task to complete.

Story of Last Season

The club from the Midlands that took the Championship by storm during the season before last then proceeded to start life in the Premier League superbly. Most notably beating Manchester United in a 5-3 thriller, Leicester also held both Merseyside teams and had several impressive displays from specific individuals. What followed was a morale crushing run of poor results leaving Leicester rock bottom. The heart and desire was there, they were just luckless.

However, Leicester escaped the drop in tremendous fashion with a run of 7 wins in 9 games towards the back end of the fixture list. From such as dismal showing around the turn of the year came a team of 11 men outplaying those well above them in the league tables. Individuals such as Vardy impressed so astutely that he earned an England call up, while Esteban Cambiasso also shone throughout the term, demonstrating his experience with impressive passing displays. Credit must also go to Nigel Pearson who altered the tactics, opting for a three man defence with the application of wing backs. This change allowed Leicester to attack with more security. It will be interesting to see which philosophy is taken forward by Ranieri following this evidence.

Transfers In

Christian Fuchs: The former Schalke left-back has been brought into replace the frail Paul Konchesky in the first team picture. The Austrian holds a wealth of experience in the German top flight whilst also being involved in the Champions League, partaking in Schalke’s famous win over Real Madrid last season. He will face a new challenge this season with Leicester likely to be involved in a scrap in the lower echelons of the league table. His talent at a dead ball situation could come in desperately handy towards the latter of the season with The Foxes set for a struggle.

Shinji Okazaki: The Japanese international has also been brought for a fee believed to be around £8 million and the hefty price-tag strongly suggests that the owners believe Leicester will survive another season. He is a different type of player to the strikers already at the club as he holds a natural poacher’s talent. Whether he can score the goals to keep them in the league remains to be seen but given the chances, he is surely clinical enough to take them.

Shinji Okazaki is one of two new men at the King Power, questions are already asked over his physical ability. Will he be able to cope with the demands of the Premier League?

Yohan Benalouane: Tunisian centre-half has signed for The Foxes on a four year deal that is; at the time of writing, still subject to international clearance. He is 28 years old and has enjoyed spells in both French and Italian football, gaining valuable experience of top quality competitive action. The fee agreed between Atlanta and Leicester is believed to be in the region of £6 million, representing a not too insignificant outlay for the Midlands side. Benalouane will provide some competition and cover in an area of defence where his new side were previously perilously short.

N’Golo Kanté: Frenchman N’Golo Kanté has also been signed on for four years, looking to take a significant step in his career as a 24 year old. Helping Caen to promotion into Ligue 1 in 2013/14, the midfielder enjoyed the role of a mainstay in their side last season and obviously impressed Ranieri enough to splash out this summer.

Key Players

Kasper Schmeichel: A shot stopper under the shadow of his father’s Champions League heroics, the Dane is a key part of the Leicester team with his sharp reflexes keeping them in games at times last season. He will be required to perform once again this year while also becoming a leader of the team after Cambiasso’s exit. As Leicester’s last line of defence, he will be in action a great deal as many teams pile on the pressure to ensure The Foxes don’t have another lucky escape.

Robert Huth: After coming in on loan in January last term, Huth enabled Pearson to have the confidence to switch to a back three. The hefty German bruiser performed so well that he earned himself a permanent deal at The KP Stadium. This season, his Premier League know-how will be vital in Leicester’s bid for survival. As a tough tackler and a strong header of the ball, he could have a key impact at either end of the field.

Riyad Mahrez: The Algerian international was in and around the first team picture for much of last season before nailing down a starting place during Leicester’s superb run of results. He has the trickery and pace to play as a winger while also holds an incisive passing ability to perform equally as well as a roaming play maker. For Ranieri to utilise him best, Mahrez must be given the confidence of a world beater as when he has such self-esteem, he can beat players at will, scoring goals and creating them too.

Predicted Line-Up

Leicester City 15/16 - Barclays Premier League - 8th August 2015 - Football tactics and formations

Ranieri has a thin and averagely experienced squad with few match winners. With most of the depth at the top of the tactics board, the Tinkerman will be praying on an injury-free season. Ranieri has claimed that he is unlikely to change anything as he stated that the team is ‘very close’ to how he wants them to play. There are permutations however, such as a complete different formation can be used if needed. Leicester have options; a simple 4-4-2 was impressive at the start of last season then it faded as teams figured out how they played. Ranieri could also use a 4-3-3 with Schlupp and Mahrez on the wings however these plans could be foiled with an injury to either man as The Foxes have few quality replacements for the spots out wide. The use of a 5-3-2 is most likely after its success last season and with the wise addition of Christian Fuchs, the already stable defence has been made stronger. The more logical choice of 2 strikers as opposed to one means Leicester have increased fire power to ensure they grab much needed points at vital moments.

If it’s personnel that Ranieri wants to alter, he may struggle. Leicester are relatively threadbare in numbers and have very little defensive class on the bench. De Laet can be used as a utility man however Paul Konchesky can’t, so much so that Ranieri has declared him not to be in his plans. In midfield, the Italian has a few more options with James and Hammond both capable of filling the role but neither light up fans’ eyes when their name is on the team sheet. Up front is surely where they are best equipped. Ulloa, Vardy, Nugent, Okazaki and Kramaric are all in contention for a starting berth and all have a genuine belief that they have done enough t deserve it. Jamie Vardy is perhaps most likely to be picked as he is a fan favourite and energetic. Ulloa could operate in a stereotypically ‘little and large’ partnership with Okazaki while Andrej Kramaric will be eager to improve on his rather poor displays last term.

The strengths of the team are clear to see; defenders that will do the basics and strikers are of Premier League standard. With Huth and Morgan having played in together last season, they have developed a strong connection at the heart of the defence while Liam Moore may come in to Ranieiri’s lineup to replace Wasilewski. A fresh face in Moore could prove pivotal in their scrap for survival as he offers a youthful approach to the game. Happy to do the basics, Moore can also bring the ball forward comfortably. The aim for him this season is to affirm his Premier League quality to ensure he stays in the top division if Leicester themselves fail to do so.

The lack of depth is the main weakness as there is an alarming absence of youth products coming through at The King Power Stadium while the loss of Esteban Cambiasso is a damaging one. His class was one of the reasons Leicester are still in the league and without it, the survival challenge has been made harder. The Foxes have been linked with N’Golo Kante who is young and hungry however he isn’t of Cambiasso’s mould. An addition of experience is needed for the Foxes to metaphorically keep their heads above water.

Another area of weakness people may point to is the lack of talent in the wide areas. Work-horse Mark Albrighton performed admirably in a wing back role last season but doesn’t have the Premier League quality or assist production that’s required. On the left side, Konchesky, Schlupp and Fuchs are there to battle it out with the latter likely to claim the starting spot. He to has performed well in the Bundesliga but Fuchs has a defensive mentality which may hinder The Foxes. Schlupp would provide an attacking outlet but then the security at the back is lost. With problems on both sides, it’s a no-win decision for new boss Claudio Ranieri.

Manager

Claudio Ranieri has arrived to a mixed reception at the KP Stadium as his previous role as Greece’s coach ended in disaster without a win. However, the man named the ‘Tinkerman’ for his constant alteration at Chelsea has stated his Europa League intentions. He’s certainly not here to add another team name to his CV, he is here to do a job. The Italian has had a somewhat remarkable managerial career with some successful stints and a few not so. His job at Inter Milan was dismal while he led Monaco from Ligue 2 to second in Ligue 1 in two years, although he was backed to the hilt by wealthy owners. Fans of The Foxes can only wait and see how Ranieri’s Leicester career pans out. The appointment was met with unsure skepticism however in a poll by The Mirror, 53% of voters tipped Ranieri to last the whole season.

Ranieri has had an inconsistent managerial career. Many fans are scratching their heads to whether this appointment will be successful.

First Six Fixtures

Leicester face three of their fellow strugglers in the opening 6 fixtures and they will need to pick up points early if they are to avoid the drop.

Opening with Sunderland at home will present Leicester’s first key test with it almost being a six-pointer so early on. With the crowd behind them, the boys in blue should secure all three points with a narrow win. West Ham away looks set to end in defeat but a lucky draw could see Leicester face Tottenham with four points already in the bag. Spurs look set to give Leicester their first taste of defeat while Bournemouth away could also end negatively. The Foxes then welcome Villa to The King Power and with the lack of reliable fire power Villa currently have at their disposal, Leicester could snatch it. For their final fixture in this series, Ranieri’s men travel to The Britannia where a trio of Bojan, Afellay and Biram-Diouf could cause havoc and leave Leicester on the end of a morale crushing defeat. A potential tally of seven points in six games is not disastrous but with harder fixtures to come, this could leave The Foxes struggling towards the end of the season.

Final Standing Prediction – 18th

With the lack of squad depth Leicester have, it is undoubtedly going to be a long and draining season for Ranieri’s men. The thin group of playing staff could run out of gas before the sharp end of the campaign, meaning they have no fuel in the tank to repeat last season’s miraculous escape. Their time in the Premier League looks set to come to an end as Ranieri isn’t the man to lead progress without money. The change in manager seems to have sent shivers down their fans’ spines while the team has not been improved enough in the required areas. A two year stay in the Premier League will end as I predict that they will narrowly miss the points total to stay in the league.

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FA Cup

Rochdale 2-2 Tottenham – Lucas Moura shines despite disappointing day for Spurs

Jake Jackman

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Tottenham

Tottenham are going to have to rely on a replay for the second successive round as they conceded a dramatic late equaliser to Rochdale. It was a reminder of the magic that the FA Cup still possesses and it will provide a useful cash injection for the League One club. Spurs opted to make several changes and rest key players, but they selected a team that should have progressed on the day.

Ian Henderson scored in the first-half to give Dale a first-half lead and it was deserved. Keith Hill’s team played good football and went toe-to-toe against their more illustrious opposition.

Lucas Moura and Harry Kane scored to put Tottenham into a 2-1 lead, but that wasn’t the end of the goal-scoring as Steve Davies scored to take the tie to a replay. Here are three talking points from Spotland:

Lucas Moura’s performance showed why Tottenham signed him

It was a signing that came out of left-field, as Tottenham prefer to do their transfer business in the summer. However, this opportunity was too good to turn down as they were given the chance to sign a proven Brazilian international. He had fallen on tough times at PSG and rarely featured this season, but he proved why the club signed him on Sunday.

The Brazilian wasn’t afraid of the fight and was up for the test offered by League One opposition. Every time he got on the ball, it looked like he could make something happen, as shown by his seven dribbles completed.

He had a touch of class that allowed him to stand out from the rest of the players on the pitch and if he can consistently perform at that level, he will turn out to be a great signing.

His movement was superb, as he regularly found pockets of space to exploit. Interestingly, he won five aerial duels and that shows that he has quickly adjusted to English football. It was Lucas that scored the equaliser mid-way through the second half with a confident finish. He will have played himself into Mauricio Pochettino’s plans for the coming weeks.

Rochdale impressed on their day in the spotlight

They were written off before a ball was kicked as they were facing one of the best teams in the country. Rochdale are currently rock-bottom of League One and 11 points from safety, albeit with four matches in hand. They laid a new pitch ahead of this match and the players adapted to it well, showing that they can play good football.

Callum Camps and Andrew Cannon impressed in the centre of the park, while their two wily experienced strikers got the goals. Ian Henderson was a tireless worker in the final third and put the Tottenham defenders under pressure.

He snatched at a couple of chances in the first-half, but he remained cool when another chance came his way and scored the opening goal.

It will be a tough ask for them to go to Wembley, but they can go there with no fear as they have nothing to lose. The tie will give them an injection of money that the club needs, especially if they are to suffer relegation this season.

Toby Alderweireld looks a long way from his best

The Tottenham defence didn’t look as assured as they usually do and both of their centre-backs struggled at times during the match.

Alderweireld was left out of the trip to Juventus and there were some supporters that questioned that decision. However, he looked short of match fitness against Rochdale and was arguably at fault for the late equaliser.

The Belgian international looked rusty and his decision making was not great. He picked up a yellow card for a rash tackle and that is one example of that. Juan Foyth played alongside Alderweireld and his inexperience showed when Rochdale did attack.

For Alderweireld, he wants to be back in the first-team and that is eventually where he will be, but he isn’t at the level required to be starting right now. Tottenham are fighting on multiple fronts and they can’t afford to have any players that aren’t at 100%. He is returning from a serious injury and he will need time to get back to his best.

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Liverpool

Roberto Firmino: His performances will shape the end to Liverpool’s season

Martyn Cooke

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On Sunday afternoon at St Mary’s Stadium the returning Virgil Van Dijk took centre stage and assumed the role of pantomime villain for the day.

However, whilst much of the pre-game build up was centred on the former Southampton defender, who was making his first return to the club since signing for Liverpool in January, the post-match conversations were focused on the brilliance of the Dutchman’s attacking teammate.

Roberto Firmino is one of the most under-rated players in the Premier League and his performance last weekend reaffirmed that he is one of the most effective forward players in the top-flight of English football.

The Brazilian has rarely been the centre of attention since arriving at Anfield in the summer of 2015 for £29 million and the media have often overlooked his significant contributions on the pitch.

Roberto Firmino

At Liverpool he has been forced to be content playing in the shadow of Philippe Coutinho, prior to his move to Barcelona, and Mohamed Salah, who has been a revelation since joining the club in the summer.

But Firmino is now emerging as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting forwards in the Premier League and he is undoubtedly one of the most improved players of the season.

The 26-year-old is both a creator and a goal scorer, as Southampton discovered to their cost at the weekend, when he opened the scoring with a neat finish within the opening six minutes before providing the assist for Salah’s goal with an ingenious flick.

The goal was his 20th of the campaign, which was shortly followed by his 21st of the season against Porto in the Reds’ midweek Champions League fixture, and he is now only nine short of becoming the Premier League’s all-time highest Brazilian goal scorer.

Firmino is a unique mixture of technical brilliance, creativity, innovation and an intelligence that makes him unpredictable, difficult to mark and a constant threat, regardless of where he pops up on the pitch.

However, whilst his Brazilian flair may catch the eye it is his willingness to pressurise opponents and work hard off the ball that is genuinely impressive.

He is certainly a favourite of Jurgen Klopp, who admires his hard running, work rate and pressing that often sets the tone for the rest of the team.

The 26-year-old has still gone somewhat unnoticed this campaign despite his consistency and performances on the pitch and the fact that he has missed only one league game all season.

But that is set to change.

Firmino’s performances and form have proven that there is still a bright future at Anfield despite the departure of Coutinho in January.

Deployed as an unconventional number nine, the Brazilian is the centre of a dynamic attacking forward line that sees him flanked by Salah on one side and Sadio Mane on the other.

The trio possess the pace, intelligence and creativity to threaten any team in Europe, as demonstrated by the mid-week five-goal demolition of Porto in the Champions League, and central to their effectiveness is the link up play of Firmino.

Still only 26, the Brazilian is about to reach the peak of his prowess and his continued development under Klopp poses the exciting question of how much better the forward might become in the forthcoming two or three years.

He certainly possesses all of the characteristics to become a legend at the club, should he choose to remain at Anfield long term, and he now has the opportunity to step out of Coutinho’s shadow and enjoy the limelight for himself.

Liverpool supporters will be hoping that Firmino can maintain his current run of form over the coming months and his performances will shape the club’s season.

His creativity and knack for scoring goals will be an invaluable commodity as Klopp goes in search of a top four place and potential silverware.

Firmino my have been underrated in the past, but he is now taking centre stage as the focal point of Liverpool’s attack.

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Huddersfield Town

Huddersfield Town 0-2 Manchester United: Three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the John Smith’s Stadium as Manchester United overcame Huddersfield Town in their FA Cup 5th Round contest.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

A brace from sharpshooter Romelu Lukaku fired Manchester United into the quarter-finals of the FA Cup at the expense of Huddersfield Town.

Lukaku opened his account in the third minute before netting his second of the evening shortly after the second-half resumption.

Victory was not as straightforward as the scoreline suggested. However, as the Terriers produced a spirited display after the early setback.

There was also controversy involving the Video Assistant Referee (VAR) system.

Juan Mata saw an effort ruled out for offside after a review, but confusion abounded about whether it had been the correct decision.

Here are three talking points from an eventful encounter, as United set up a last-eight tie with Brighton & Hove Albion…

Lukaku’s goals are a fillip for Jose Mourinho

The Belgian has come in for criticism from some quarters for his goal return since last summer’s big-money transfer from Everton.

While he may not have reached the levels of Harry Kane or Mohamed Salah, Lukaku has now scored 21 times in all competitions for United this season.

That tally was boosted by his double against Huddersfield, which showed off his best attributes.

Lukaku was too strong and clever for Huddersfield’s defence as he latched on to Mata’s through ball for the first, before putting the finishing touch to an Alexis Sanchez pass for his second.

The former Chelsea man’s performance will be the biggest plus for United boss Jose Mourinho, who is relying on him to spearhead the attack for the remainder of the campaign.

Lukaku is a confidence player, so this was a timely boost ahead of a crucial run of fixtures both domestically and in Europe.

VAR under the microscope yet again

The introduction of technology to any sport usually results in teething problems.

It is fair to say VAR has experienced more than its fair share in football this season.

Employed in some FA and League Cup matches, controversy has never been far away. This was again the case at Huddersfield.

Mata appeared to have doubled United’s lead just before half-time, but referee Kevin Friend waited for confirmation from VAR that he had been onside.

After about a minute, Friend disallowed the goal when it was judged that Mata had been fractionally offside as the ball was played.

Contention emerged when viewers saw the incident on TV, where the guidelines were clearly not straight.

In fact, they were embarrassingly wonky.

Further replays suggested – with parallel lines correctly in place – that Mata’s knee had indeed been offside, but it was a very close call and certainly not an obvious mistake by the referee’s assistant.

These technical hitches will need to be ironed out before VAR is brought in universally.

Huddersfield can be positive despite FA Cup exit

With their Premier League status hanging in the balance, it would have been understandable if Huddersfield manager David Wagner had seen this fixture as an unwanted distraction.

But there was absolutely no suggestion that they were trying not to win the match, or prepared to exit the competition without a fight.

The Terriers, who famously beat United at home in the Premier League last October, carried on from where they left off last weekend in the impressive 4-1 victory over Bournemouth.

Conceding so early to United had not been in the script, but the hosts regrouped quickly and caused their opponents plenty of problems.

Ultimately, the difference between the two sides was the quality of finishing.

Whereas the visitors scored with their only two shots on target, Huddersfield wasted numerous openings as they slipped to defeat.

Nevertheless, attention can be turned back to their bid for survival, without their confidence dented.

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