In what should be dubbed the ‘Having Such A Good 2015/16 Campaign That You Don’t Care About This Season’ derby, an in-form Leicester City side take on a shaky West Ham United, both of whom will probably be wishing that last campaign could have repeated itself this time around.
Since the decision to get rid of cult hero Claudio Ranieri, Craig Shakespeare has guided the Foxes to back-to-back victories in the Premier League and also a Champions League quarter-final spot – making it seem like sacking the title-winning Italian was actually a stroke of genius. Leicester have suddenly regained the confidence that propelled them so far last season and are ready to storm up the Premier League table, far away from the relegation battle they once found themselves in. It’s worth pointing out, however, that Shakespeare’s team have yet to win away this season (0W 3D 10L) and have the second worst away form in the division.
West Ham are now four games without a win in the league after a shocking performance against Bournemouth, which saw them concede three goals and give away two penalties. Shipping goals seems to be the main problem for the Hammers at present – they have only kept one clean sheet in 2017 and have conceded eight times in their last four games. As well as this, Slaven Bilic’s side are in the bottom five teams in the division when it comes to home form. Fans from both teams would arguably prefer it if the match was played at the King Power Stadium.
West Ham only have two minor concerns ahead of the game – wingers Michail Antonio and Robert Snodgrass have picked up knocks but both should be fit. Long-term absentees Gokhan Tore, Angelo Ogbonna and Diafra Sakho are all unlikely to return this season.
Leicester nearly have a fully fit squad to select from. Nampalys Mendy is set to recover from a knee injury but would be unlikely to feature in the game, having made only a handful of appearances all season. Elsewhere, January loanee signing Molla Wagué remains ruled out with a dislocated shoulder.
West Ham predicted line-up Leicester predicted line-up
Slaven Bilic is set to tinker with his side after a poor run of form. With Jose Fonte showing no signs of improvement, it may be tempting to start with James Collins in the heart of defence alongside Winston Reid. Sam Byram grabbed an assist off the bench at right-back, which may have given Bilic enough reason to select him instead of the out-of-position Chiekhou Kouyate. Elsewhere, Andre Ayew will be vying for a starting position following two goals and one assist in the previous three matches. The manager has experimented with quite a few formations in the last run of matches, so it’s anyone’s guess what the Croatian will deploy this time around.
Craig Shakespeare has named the same line-up for the last three games and would have no reason to make any rash changes.
There seems to be no stopping Leicester City at the present moment and a West Ham United side who love to concede aren’t likely to put a dent in their form. A first away win of the season for the Foxes is on the cards, but only by a slim margin.
Prediction: West Ham United 1-2 Leicester City
Leicester City 1-1 Bournemouth: Three talking points from the King Power
Riyad Mahrez’s stunning 97th-minute free-kick rescued a point for Leicester City against Bournemouth.
Mahrez, who had been heavily linked with a move to Manchester City in the January transfer window, curled the ball past Asmir Begovic from 30 yards to deny the Cherries victory in a grandstand finish at the King Power Stadium.
Joshua King had given Bournemouth a first-half lead when he stepped up to dispatch a spot-kick after being fouled inside the area.
The Foxes threw everything at their opponents in the second period but had to wait until deep into added-time for a dramatic equaliser.
Here are three talking points…
Redemption for Mahrez after troubling period
The Algerian’s attempts to engineer a switch to City and subsequent failure to report to training had not been well received by Leicester supporters.
Mahrez had been a key figure in the Foxes’ phenomenal Premier League title triumph two years ago, but his reputation suffered a battering when he made it clear he saw his future away from the club.
After a difficult period for all involved, Mahrez is back in the fold and now back in the fans’ good books.
His last-minute goal against the Cherries certainly was evidence of his redemption.
Thirty yards out, the 27-year-old started the ball outside the wall and watched it bend back past Begovic’s outstretched right hand.
Leicester, who have never beaten Bournemouth in the top-flight, are winless in five Premier League matches, but they remain eighth in the table.
With Mahrez’s reintegration seemingly complete, a fruitful finish to the season could even help them push for a European place.
Howe ‘disgusted’ as Bournemouth concede so late
Bournemouth’s backs had been firmly up against the wall in the second half as they sought to hold on to their tenuous advantage.
It looked to have been a worthwhile effort until Mahrez’s moment of magic.
A share of the spoils was probably fair in the context of the game, but Cherries manager Eddie Howe admitted he felt ‘disgusted’ after watching the visitors concede so late.
Only four minutes of stoppage-time had been scheduled, but an injury to Simon Francis as well as a substitution meant referee Lee Probert played nearly double that amount.
Despite missing out on what would have been a crucial win, Bournemouth are edging towards safety.
They have lost only once since Christmas, a run that has helped them climb out of the relegation zone and amass 33 points.
Two more victories from their remaining nine fixtures should be enough to secure Premier League football for a fourth successive campaign.
Summer will be a key time for both clubs
In a league that is dominated by the so-called ‘Big Six’, the primary aim of the other 14 clubs is survival.
As mentioned above, both Leicester and Bournemouth are all but guaranteed to be playing in the top-flight next season.
The question for both in the summer will be, how can they push on?
The first job for the Foxes’ hierarchy and manager Claude Puel will be deciding the future of Mahrez.
Do they cash in on their star player and reinvest the funds into the squad, or do they try to tie him down to a new contract?
Bournemouth’s ambitions are perhaps not as high as Leicester’s, but after finishing ninth last season, another mid-table position will consolidate their status as a bona fide Premier League outfit.
On the field, there may be some significant outgoings as Howe looks to freshen his resources.
The out-of-favour Harry Arter is one player who looks likely to leave the south coast.
Off the field, the club will hope its plans for a new stadium get closer to becoming a reality.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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