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Three talking points as Leicester City and Stoke City played out an entertaining draw

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Peter Crouch’s trademark header proved enough to salvage a point for Stoke City in a thoroughly compelling encounter with Leicester City at the bet365 Stadium in the Saturday lunchtime kick-off.

Vicente Iborra was the unlikely figure to break the deadlock after a slow start to proceedings, with the ex-Sevilla man popping up inside the six-yard box from a corner to thump an effort into the net.

This began an end-to-end passage of play to finish the first-half, with the visitors going close to doubling their lead when Shinji Okazaki’s header was brilliantly kept out by Jack Butland in the Stoke goal, but it was the hosts who struck the next blow when Xherdan Shaqiri smartly tucked home.

The second-half continued with the high tempo of the first and it was Leicester who took the lead once again, with Riyad Mahrez wriggling his way into the area and squirming a shot beyond Butland.

Yet the hosts rallied for a second time and, just moments after coming on, Peter Crouch marked his 142nd league appearance from the bench with a typically towering header to set up a frenetic finale.

Both sides pushed in search of a late winner and Stoke nearly found one, but Kasper Schmeichel pulled off a superb diving stop from Crouch in the last action of the day to ensure the spoils were shared.

Script aborted as the bet365 plays host to compelling encounter

Considering the pedigree of some of the fixtures on show this weekend in the Premier League, not many would have been excited by a Saturday lunchtime clash between Stoke City and Leicester City.

Neither side are particularly known for their free-flowing approach on the football field, nor have either side had the ideal start to the 2017-18 campaign, so the prospect of two mid-table teams having a showdown at the bet365 Stadium did little to whet the appetite for the weekend ahead.

A drab opening 25 minutes – within which the most exciting thing to happen was an enforced change of officials – did little to suggest the game would follow anything other than this script.

Yet the match all of a sudden burst into life with Iborra’s opener for the visitors, sparking a frantic ending to the first-half that saw a sensational save from Jack Butland and a sublime Stoke equaliser.

The end-to-end nature of the game was a combination of some poor defending some both sides and some severe pace in their respective attacking outlets, with the likes of Riyad Mahrez, Jamie Vardy, Demarai Gray and Xherdan Shaqiri all posing a potent threat with their raw acceleration up the field.

Yet the way the match transpired just outlined how both managers have ambitions of the top-half this season – perhaps even going as far as challenging for the European spots – and it led to a compelling game full of clear opportunities which completely subverted any pre-match conceptions.

Demarai Gray and Riyad Mahrez shine again under Claude Puel

It’s been quite the week for Leicester City’s Demarai Gray.

After being awarded just his second Premier League start of the season by new manager Claude Puel last weekend against Everton, a match where the England Under-21 star found the back of the net and influenced heavily, it was announced that Gray had penned a new four-year deal at the King Power.

And after last week’s performance it was little surprise that the youngster was named in Puel’s starting line-up for the trip to Stoke, making back-to-back league starts for the first time since early April.

It seems like Gray is ready to take his opportunity to impress under a new manager, and he was a constant thorn in Stoke’s side on Saturday afternoon with a combination of his pace and tricky runs.

He caused regular problems for Mame Biram Diouf in the host’s defence, twisting and turning him inside out on a number of occasion, and he can count himself unfortunate not to grab an assist when his perfectly-weighted cross for Okazaki was miraculously kept out from close-range by Butland.

Yet Gray’s rise to prominence under Puel has equally brought the best out of Riyad Mahrez, with the Algerian celebrating his 150th appearance for the Foxes with his second league goal of the season.

The duo were unarguably Leicester’s biggest threat all afternoon, working in tandem on the wings to provide some width and offer a constant outlet on the counter-attack, and Mahrez was good value for his second-half strike after a display full of the trickery and confidence from the 2015-16 season.

The fact that Mahrez is beginning to re-find some form on the pitch is only a good sign for Leicester fans and it seems that he is responding to the impressive displays from Gray over on the other flank.

Puel’s decision to persist with a 4-2-3-1 formation, starting both Mahrez and Gray, has worked wonders in his opening few matches and there’s suddenly a lot of promise for the season ahead.

Peter Crouch effort papers over Stoke’s defensive cracks

Was it ever in doubt?

With Stoke in need of a goal after falling behind for the second time, Mark Hughes looked to his bench and turned to the obdurate figure of Peter Crouch to try and provide his threat from the air.

The tactic of lumping long balls forward to the England striker was a far cry from the pattern of play from the preceding 69 minutes but, as proven time and time again in the past, Crouch simply has this way of popping up inside the 18-yard-box and getting his team out of jail with his golden head.

Leicester would have known what was coming from the second Crouch stepped on the pitch but knowing about it and dealing with it are two different things, and the 34-year-old almost inevitably nodded home with 15 minutes to go for his 15th goal as a Premier League substitute.

However, Crouch’s late contribution will only serve to paper over the cracks of another below-par performance from Mark Hughes’ side, who can count themselves lucky to have earnt a point.

Heading into Saturday’s clash the Potters had the second-worst defensive record in the Premier League behind bottom side Crystal Palace, conceding 20 goals in their ten games.

Whilst 16 of these came in the absence of Ryan Shawcross the Stoke captain did little to consolidate his side’s back-three against the Foxes and the likes of Gray and Mahrez caused havoc down the flanks, and Leicester will feel aggrieved that they didn’t leave with all three points.

Stoke were indebted to goalkeeper Butland on a number of occasions, including the aforementioned outstanding stop from Okazaki from just a matter of yards out, but the way in which they were exposed on the counter-attack would have set the alarm bells ringing for the Potters’ coaching staff.

It was their defending from set-pieces that caused most concern though, with their zonal approach to corners leaving a number of Leicester runners free on each occasion, and it was little surprise when Iborra was left all alone inside the penalty area to thump home and give the visitors the lead.

There are a number of talented individuals in the Stoke defence, who have all impressed in their own right at times this season, but it’s time for Hughes to now get them working together to try and stop leaking goals.

Will is a Multimedia Journalism graduate from the University of Salford, specialising in the art of sports. Long-time suffering Northampton Town fan who once saw us win a league title. Find him on Twitter - @96PearsonW.

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Leicester City

Manchester City 5-1 Leicester City: Sergio Aguero issues timely reminder to Pep Guardiola

Rob Meech brings us three talking points from the Etihad as Manchester City dismantled challengers Leicester City, 5-1, to continue their pursuit of the Premier League title.

Rob Meech

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Manchester City
Photo: Reuters

Sergio Aguero scored four second-half goals as Manchester City blitzed Leicester City to take another step towards the Premier League title.

Raheem Sterling’s third-minute opener was cancelled out by Jamie Vardy, as both teams went into half-time level-pegging.

Then came the fireworks.

Aguero netted his first on 48 minutes before putting another three past Kasper Schmeichel, with his fourth and final goal coming on the 90-minute mark.

City’s victory, coupled with Manchester United’s surprising 1-0 defeat to Newcastle United, extended their advantage at the top to the table to 16 points.

Leicester, meanwhile, remain in eighth spot despite enduring a torrid evening at the hands of Aguero and co.

Here are three talking points…

Aguero issues a timely reminder to Pep Guardiola

There is only one place to start.

At times, this has been a difficult season for the Argentinian sharpshooter, who has often played second fiddle to Gabriel Jesus in the crunch fixtures and cut a frustrated figure on the sidelines.

However, the Brazilian’s injury opened the door for Aguero and he has barged through, reminding Pep Guardiola why he can still play a major role as City fight on three fronts; in the Premier League, FA Cup and Champions League.

Aguero was at his predatory best against a Leicester side that were far too accommodating in the second period and, with Kevin de Bruyne pulling the strings in behind, the Argentine has the perfect foil.

All the talk right now is about Harry Kane, but Aguero is only two goals behind the Tottenham man in the goalscoring charts, after netting in his seventh straight game at the Etihad.

This tally has also seen the 29-year-old surpass 20 goals for the fourth successive season.

Off-field issues undermine Leicester

With such a major distraction off the pitch this week, a visit to the runaway leaders was not the ideal fixture for Leicester manager Claude Puel.

Riyad Mahrez had dominated the headlines in light of his failure to report for training.

A U-turn saw him make himself available for the City clash, but at such short notice he was only afforded a place in the substitutes bench, coming on just after the hour mark.

Mahrez has acted unprofessionally after a deadline-day move to City was blocked by the club and he will have bridges to build with the club’s supporters.

When Vardy scored for the fourth game in succession to equalise, those fans would have hoped that they could return to the Midlands with a point.

Alas, City flexed their muscles after the interval and extinguished such aspirations.

But Leicester, in the comfort of eighth spot, can hopefully look forward with their best player back in the right frame of mind.

De Bruyne sparkles like a real diamond

This week, Chelsea playmaker Eden Hazard was honoured with Belgium’s player of the year award.

Perhaps that was the spur for de Bruyne to produce another virtuoso performance.

He was always at the heart of City’s attacking play, the conductor of the orchestra who is at the peak of his powers.

De Bruyne assisted City’s first three goals to take his tally for the season to 14 – four more than his nearest challenger.

The cross that teed up Sterling was perfectly weighted, so was the delivery that enabled Aguero to open his account.

Another sumptuous ball from de Bruyne for the Argentinian left him with the opportunity to double his tally, which he duly took.

Football is subjective, but it is hard to believe at present there is a better midfielder in Europe than de Bruyne – that includes Hazard.

Belgium are fortunate to have them both in their ranks.

Wrapping them up in cotton wool will be crucial to their World Cup bid.

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Leicester City

How do Leicester City solve a problem like Riyad Mahrez?

January interest from Manchester City has turned the head of Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez. Now it is down to the Foxes hierarchy to dictate the Algerian’s short term future, writes Rob Meech.

Rob Meech

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Photo: Reuters

As bargains go, few can beat Leicester City’s capture of Riyad Mahrez.

Signed from French outfit Le Havre for the nominal fee of £320,000 in January 2014, the Algerian has exceeded all expectations to become one of the world’s best footballers.

Mahrez played a starring role in arguably the biggest shock in British sporting history, as the Foxes defied odds of 5,000-1 to lift the Premier League trophy in 2016.

The 26-year-old dazzled spectators with his mazy runs and goals, scoring 17 times in total.

Cutting in from the right wing and curling the ball past the goalkeeper’s outstretched right glove was his trademark.

The nucleus of that title-winning side has since disbanded, with Danny Drinkwater and N’Golo Kante having both swapped the King Power Stadium for Chelsea’s Stamford Bridge.

Mahrez had pledged his future to the Foxes in the months following their sensational triumph, putting pen-to-paper on a bumper four-year-contract.

However, speculation linking the 2016 PFA Player of the Year with a transfer grew and after a disappointing campaign both personally and collectively, he announced his wish to leave the Midlands outfit, saying he felt it was the time to ‘move on.

A number of clubs were linked with him, but a move failed to materialise.

After initially being omitted from the starting line-up in the early stages of this season, the appointment of Claude Puel revitalised Mahrez, who reminded everyone why he had been so highly coveted.

Since then, his relationship with Leicester has turned sour.

He submitted a written transfer request in January and tried to force through a move to Manchester City, whose £60 million offer was rejected by the Foxes.

Sanctioning his departure on deadline day would have given Leicester very little time to sign a replacement.

Moreover, any potential deal would have been greatly inflated, with clubs wise to Leicester’s sudden windfall. Mahrez though, has effectively gone on strike.

He has not appeared at training this week and skipped the club’s past two fixtures.

Mahrez believes he has been denied his dream move.

He has given the club another 18 months of his career after they won the Premier League and in that time has seen the club sell the likes of Drinkwater and Kante.

Now, he feels the club should repay his loyalty. Instead, he feels betrayed.

It leaves Leicester in a predicament.

Even if Mahrez reported for training, it is likely he would incur a heavy fine and/or suspension.

It is hard to believe his team-mates feel anything other than let down by their star player.

By refusing to work at the club that pays his handsome wages, he is also damaging his reputation among the fans, who worshipped him as a hero.

One course of action for Leicester is to banish Mahrez to the reserves, much like Southampton did with Virgil van Dijk.

In reality, the hierarchy will understand it makes no sense in the long-term.

Selling their prized asset for an amount that meets their valuation, at a time that enables them to identify a replacement, would be best for both parties.

On top of the financial aspect is the effect this saga is having on the squad.

In an environment as highly charged as the Premier League, unwanted distractions can have major impacts.

Ultimately, there are rules that must be obeyed and respected.

No player can be allowed to breach his contract and go AWOL just because he doesn’t get what he wants.

Mahrez is tied to Leicester until 2020, a contract he was more than happy to sign.

He is in a privileged position and his childish behaviour only enhances the disconnect between footballers and the man on the street.

Reopening dialogue with the club and apologising for his actions would be a first step towards reconciliation.

Mahrez’s future may lie away from the King Power Stadium, but there are ways and means of going about it. Remaining professional is top of the list.

The supporters deserve better from a man who achieved more than he could possibly have dreamt of at Leicester City.

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Leicester City 2-0 Watford: Three talking points from the King Power

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Leicester City
Photo: Reuters

Leicester City moved up to seventh in the Premier League table as goals in either half from Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez earnt a comfortable win over struggling Watford on Saturday afternoon.

It was a far from fluid encounter between two sides looking to turn around some below par recent form, but it was the hosts who went closest early on when Vardy’s low drive was parried away by incoming goalkeeper Orestis Karnezis.

Troy Deeney found the net for Watford only to see it chalked off for offside before Vardy did open the scoring, being hauled down by Molla Wague’s late challenge before coolly sending Karnezis the wrong way with the spot-kick.

Watford made some attacking substitutions after the break as they went in search of an equaliser and Andre Gray went closest when his effort was pushed aside, but by committing men into the attack they were always vulnerable to the counter and Mahrez tucked home to secure all the points.

The result sees the Foxes earn just their second win in seven league matches, lifting them above Burnley into seventh, whilst Watford remain in 10th with just the solitary win in their past 11 games.

Defeat proves the final straw as Silva sacked

What a difference a few months can make.

At the end of September, Watford were within touching distance of the Champions League spots after a blistering start to the season, losing just one out of eight matches.

There were genuine talks that the Hornets could be the team to try and muscle their way into the top six such was the way they ground out results and it was testament to some expansive football.

But a wretched run of form since a 3-0 away win at Newcastle in late November has ended those lofty ambitions and sent Watford – and boss Marco Silva – crashing back down to earth with an unwanted reality check, and defeat at Leicester means it’s now just the solitary win in 11 league outings.

It also signalled the end of Silva’s time in charge after just a matter of months, with the Club releasing a statement on Sunday morning announcing that they have parted company with the Portuguese tactician.

It may not come as a surprise considering their recent run of form but it’s a decision that has a feeling of haste about it, as Silva’s rejuvenation of Watford at the start of the season was unlike anything seen at Vicarage Road for a number of years.

Yet ultimately football is a results driven business and this – allied with an underlying message about Everton’s approach before Christmas – has resulted in his swift dismissal.

As for Watford’s demise, it’s hard to pinpoint an area as to why this has happened.

Over the course of these games they’ve conceded 23 times and only scored 11 – the same amount they managed in their opening seven games of the year – and there’s evidently glaring problems at both ends of the pitch.

Constant injuries to first-team players has hampered any hopes of progress but there’s still more than enough quality in the Watford squad, and whoever the new man in is they will need to find a way to get them firing again.

Record-signing Gray draws blank again

It’s perhaps not a coincidence that Watford’s decline in form has come at the same time as a dry patch from young Brazilian Richarlison, who had proven to be a revelation in the Premier League since his summer move.

The 20-year-old has failed to find the net since the 2-0 win over West Ham in mid-November – 12 matches ago – and in the same period of time he’s only managed to create nine chances for his side.

For a point of comparison, he managed to score five goals and craft 14 opportunities in his opening 12 games when Watford were firing on all fronts. This will no doubt worry whoever Silva’s successor is as, whenever Richarlison isn’t impacting matches, it seems that there’s no-one else who will pick up the goal-scoring burden.

And one of the biggest disappointments of the season to date for the Hornets has been the patchy form of club-record signing Andre Gray.

At £18.5million there was a lot of hope and expectation on the shoulders of the former Burnley man but, with just four goals from 23 outings, he hasn’t quite had the desired impact since arriving at Vicarage Road.

It was a match where clear chances were few and far between but Watford’s best chance of an equaliser fell to Gray in the second-half, where his shot from inside the area was pushed away by Kasper Schmeichel. It was a smart stop but, on another day and with an in-form striker, it should have been buried and Gray will be kicking himself over it.

The players will know that they need to just grind out a result and their form could turn around again, and they will hope to get a second wind under a new manager and return to winning ways when they visit relegation-threatened Stoke City in a fortnight’s time.

Vardy and Mahrez run Watford ragged

Leicester City supporters can be forgiven for thinking that it’s the 2015-16 Premier League season once again as Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez ran the show to earn a convincing win over Watford.

The duo have both endured some testing spells since the euphoric title-winning year but under Claude Puel they seem to be thriving, and the way they ran the show on Saturday was merely indicative of the confidence that is flowing through their veins again.

Watford will no doubt be sick of the sight of Mahrez after he notched his fifth goal in his last five appearances against the Hornets, rounding things off in injury-time with a composed finish.

There seems to be far less speculation over the Algerian’s future in this January transfer window compared to last year and it’s arguably this that allows him to focus on his football and nothing else.

And he was well accompanied by Vardy on the day, who caused constant problems for an under-strength Watford back-line. Their centre-back pairing of Molla Wague – who brought him down for the penalty – and Christian Kabasele just couldn’t contain his pace nor keep track of his late runs.

If both Vardy and Mahrez can sustain this sort of form long into the season then it’s anyone’s guess as to where Leicester may finish – and who knows, seventh might be a more than realistic target.

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