Leicester City look to avoid making it “two steps forward, one step back” on Saturday when they try to build on their Carabao Cup win at St James’ Park versus Newcastle United.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Foxes (3-0-3) avoided a third loss on the bounce last weekend by rallying from an early deficit to win 3-1 over Huddersfield Town. Jamie Vardy and Kelechi Iheanacho scored goals thanks to the other’s help around a 25-yard free kick from James Maddison in the 66th minute for the go-ahead marker.
Leicester City followed up that effort Tuesday by advancing to the fourth round of the Carabao Cup, eliminating new boys Wolverhampton 3-1 on penalties at Molineux following a scoreless 90 minutes.
Second-string keeper and cup starter Danny Ward made a star turn during the spot kicks, saving efforts by Diogo Jota and Romain Saiss in the first two rounds and stopping Adama Traore for the match-clincher to send the Foxes through.
“As I have said before, in penalty shoot-outs it’s my job to save them and my heroes are the boys who put them in the back of the net,” Ward told LCFC TV after his biggest moment since arriving from Liverpool in the summer transfer window. “This is massive for us, we want to take this competition seriously, we want to go as far as we can, it’s not a training exercise, we do that on the pitch at the training ground.
“We want to progress and do as well as we can.”
The win may have come with a high price as winger Demarai Gray was forced off in stoppage time with an ankle injury. Claude Puel rotated eight players from the win over Huddersfield, most notably resting defender Harry Maguire and pulling holdover Vardy at the hour for Iheanacho.
The Nigeria international has emerged as Puel’s strike partner for Vardy, totaling two goals and two assists in his last four matches across all competitions. Iheanacho had eight goals in 28 overall matches in 2017-18.
Both he and Vardy have benefitted from the arrival of Maddison, already considered one of England’s top playmaking midfielders despite being only 21. He has a team-leading three goals in league play and started the movement that led to Iheanacho’s goal versus Huddersfield, continuing his seamless transition to the Premier League following his £24 million transfer and from Championship side Norwich City.
As the Foxes seek that next level to climb from the mid-table, Newcastle United (0-2-4) are hunting for a lifeline out of the bottom three as they again seek their first victory. The Magpies avoided a fifth loss on the spin last weekend, taking a point back to Tyneside following a scoreless draw against Crystal Park at Selhurst Park.
But the public tete-a-tete between manager Rafa Benitez and embattled owner Mike Ashley added yet another chapter following the match. The Sports Direct magnate attended a match for the first time in 16 months, and the traveling Toon Army continued their vocal support of Benitez by jeering their owner.
Ashley and Benitez did not meet after the match, and after multiple transfer windows of unfulfilled promises of money to spend, the Spaniard hopes his boss now understands the urgency of the situation ahead of the upcoming one in January.
“I have to take this as a positive,” Benitez told The Times when asked about Ashley’s presence at Selhurst Park. “If he comes to the team he can see his players, what we have, and hopefully he can be more sensible and then he will be ready to do something if we need to do it. I think he knows that, and he can do it.
“We have to be sure everyone supports the team, starting with the owner, and then we will be stronger.”
While Newcastle have yet to record a victory, Benitez pragmatically mitigated the damage of a gauntlet versus Tottenham Hotspur, Chelsea, Manchester City and Arsenal among their first six league matches and emerging with only a minus-4 goal difference. The onus is now on Newcastle to start moving up the table against the lesser-calibre clubs, something Benitez readily embraces.
“We have a lot to do now, but if the team work as hard as they did today and if you score first against teams who are not in the top six, then it can change everything.”
Scoring first, however, is something Newcastle have yet to accomplish. They have not held a lead at any point in their first seven matches in all competitions, and three of their five overall goals have come in the 83rd minute or later.
The road team won both matches last season, with an 86th minute own goal by Newcastle midfielder Ayoze Perez the difference in Leicester City’s 3-2 win at St. James’ Park. The Foxes have won their last two matches at Tyneside, but their 2-1 loss in the most recent meeting snapped a five-game winning streak in all competitions versus the Magpies.
Per Ladbrokes, Newcastle are slight favourites to break their duck and win for the first time this season, getting 6/4 odds. Leicester City are 19/10 underdogs, and the odds of the teams splitting the points is also tightly packed in there at 21/10.
Oddsmakers do not seem entirely sure of how Newcastle are going to win this game, with 7/4 odds of the Magpies winning with more than 2.5 goals and 15/4 odds of them winning with less than 2.5. Equally intriguing is the Foxes narrowly getting better odds to win with more than 2.5 goals (17/4) than under (9/2). A 0-0 or 1-1 draw is also getting plenty of traction with 27/10 odds.
Vardy leads the line for first-goal honours despite his status as guest, checking in with 9/2 odds. Newcastle strikers Joselu and Rondon are joint-second at 11/2, while Iheanacho gets 6/1 billing to stake the Foxes to that all-important 1-0 lead.
Vardy also leads the way for anytime goal-scorers at 7/4, with Joselu nipping Rondon for second at 21/10 compared to 11/5 for the Venezuela international. Iheanacho (9/4) and Leicester City playmaker Maddison (12/5) round out the top five of options over the course of 90 minutes.
This is the point where the rubber meets the road for Benitez and Newcastle. After doggedly playing to expectations in which the Magpies were competitive but snakebitten — sometimes deservedly so based on set-up — it is now imperative for the Tyneside team to start scoring goals. And while it is easy to look at Joselu or Rondon as the source of these struggles, Kenedy should not go without blame.
One of the most important loan acquisitions for Newcastle United in helping them secure a top-half finish last term, the Chelsea product has yet to unlock the offence this season and also cost his team two points with his missed penalty against Cardiff City as the teams finished 0-0.
The good news for Newcastle is that in both Cardiff and Huddersfield Town, there are two sides that appear unlikely at any point to pull themselves out of the bottom three and separate themselves ahead of the Magpies. The challenge for Benitez’s team is to instead open a gap above them.
Leicester City continue to be a curious side that could find themselves in the hunt for a top-seven finish or in that no man’s land between 11th and 15th where the order fluctuates from week to week. While it took a season-plus, the Foxes are finally getting consistent production from Iheanacho, who has learned how to take advantage of Vardy’s tireless work rate up front.
It also helps the Nigeria international he is being supplied by Maddison, who is quickly putting his mark on the Premier League as opposing players are taking note. This is a match where manager Claude Puel should be setting his team up for victory — they have a standout central defender and a well-rested one in Maguire who should be up for the challenge of shutting down whichever Newcastle striker Benitez chooses between Joselu or Rondon — and they have the better attacking options across the front with Rachid Ghezzal in support in their 4-2-3-1 formation.
The Foxes also have the better keeper in Schmeichel and should do well to keep possession in this match to limit Newcastle’s chances offensively. The Foxes have a chance to kick on after their midweek victory and should do so at St James’ Park.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Newcastle United 0, LEICESTER CITY 2.