For a man who has two of the biggest league victories of the season over Big Six sides, Leicester City manager Claude Puel appears to be treading on thin ice.
The embattled Foxes boss looks to keep the Midlands side atop the pack for seventh on Saturday when they host Puel’s former club Southampton at King Power Stadium.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
Leicester City (9-4-8) are currently “the best of the rest” in the Premier League on 31 points, seven behind resurgent Manchester United. Seventh place carries the potential of a Europa League qualifying berth based on Carabao Cup and FA Cup results, but supporters were hoping for a deep run in the FA Cup after a respectable quarterfinal exit on penalties in the Carabao Cup versus current holders Manchester City.
Those hopes, however, were dashed with a shocking 2-1 loss at League Two side Newport County on Sunday, a side 74 places below the Foxes in the English football pyramid. Marc Albrighton handled a cross on 85 minutes that allowed Newport’s Under-16 coach, Padraig Amond, to slot home the winning penalty.
“A lot of disappointment and frustration,” Puel told The Times after making seven changes to the first XI that powered a 1-0 win over Everton to ring in 2019. “But it’s a cup game and we didn’t find the solution to score more goals. We have had a good team with eight who had played winning the title with Leicester. I don’t want to look for excuses.”
Puel’s man management has left him open to criticism that has canceled out the goodwill that should have been fostered with wins over Manchester City and Chelsea on top of the way he kept the side together following the tragic death of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in October.
Puel and top striker Jamie Vardy – who did not even make the trip to Wales – have not seen eye to eye on multiple occasions this term, and leaving midfielder James Maddison on the bench until after intermission was another talking point in the Midlands.
“The good thing about football is that you get the chance to put it right as quickly as possible,” Albrighton told Leicester City’s official website. “We’ll aim to do that. We’re at home, so it makes it even better for us, we’ve got the crowd behind us and we’ll look to start well in the game and put last week to bed.
“We’ve had two close games against Southampton (this season). I know they’re probably a different task now with a new manager. They play differently and they seem to be playing with a lot more confidence.”
Southampton (3-7-11) are now three managers removed from Puel, who guided them to an eighth-place finish and a League Cup final in his lone season in charge in 2016-17. Mark Hughes was barely successful in keeping the Saints above the drop last term after replacing Mauricio Pellegrino, and now Ralph Hasenhuttl is trying to do the same after a miserable start this season led to Hughes’ sacking.
Southampton have improved since the German took over, but they did themselves no favours in the FA Cup on Saturday, having been held to a 2-2 draw at Derby County that will result in a third-round replay at St Mary’s. Nathan Redmond continued his purple patch of scoring with a brace on either side of halftime, but Tom Lawrence set up a goal and scored a second for Frank Lampard’s side in a three-minute span of the second half.
The match did allow Hasenhuttl a chance to observe more of Southampton’s younger players, with midfielder Callum Slattery making his senior team debut.
“I think he won a lot of balls from this position and also has the technique to look in front and give the last pass. I was happy with his performance and he showed he is always an alternative for me,” Hasenhuttl noted to the club’s official website about the 19-year-old.
Keeper Angus Gunn could be in line for a third consecutive start in all competitions after turning in a clean sheet in his first league start – a 0-0 draw versus Chelsea in which the 22-year-old made a pair of quality saves to deny Eden Hazard.
Up front, Hasenhuttl will be without top-choice striker Danny Ings through injury and Charlie Austin through suspension, with the forward being given a two-match ban by the FA for making an insulting gesture in Southampton’s 3-1 loss to Manchester City on Dec. 30. Midfielder Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg will serve the last of his three-match ban for a straight red card given late in that contest.
Austin will miss this match and the replay against Derby County next Wednesday. The absence of Ings and Austin puts more pressure on Redmond to continue producing. He has four goals and two assists in his last six matches across all competitions.
Leicester City ran out 2-1 winners in the reverse fixture at St Mary’s in August, with Harry Maguire’s strike in stoppage time cruelly denying 10-man Southampton a point. Demarai Gray and Ryan Bertrand traded goals four minutes apart early in the second half, and the Saints played a man down after 77 minutes after Hojbjerg received a second booking for diving.
The teams also played to a scoreless draw in the round of 16 in the Carabao Cup before Leicester advanced on penalties after an 85th-minute goal by Southampton’s Steven Davis was overturned by VAR for a handball on Redmond in the buildup.
The Foxes have not done the double over Southampton in the Premier League since 1999-2000.
Per Bet365, Leicester City are 19/20 favourites to bounce back from their embarrassing FA Cup exit and claim all three points, while Southampton are 10/3 underdogs to claim a road win and heap further pressure on Puel. The odds of the sides splitting the points are 5/2.
Oddsmakers are predicting a low-scoring contest, with 8/11 odds offered for under the 2.5-goal threshold compared to 11/10 over it. It’s a toss-up as to whether both teams will score or a shutout will be recorded in either direction with 10/11 odds for both.
In a bit of a surprise, the Foxes striker leading the list for first goal-scorers is Kelechi Iheanacho at 15/4, nudging out Vardy (4/1). A trio of Leicester players — Maddison, Demarai Gray, and Shinjo Okazaki are all 13/2. Long was originally among that group, but with his suspension, the top Saints to make it 0-1 are Shane Long (9/1) and Redmond (10/1).
Iheanacho is a 6/5 pick to score during the course of the match, with Vardy in close pursuit at 13/10. The aforementioned Foxes threesome are each 11/5 picks to score a goal while Long is a 10/3 pick. Redmond and Stuart Armstrong both check in at 7/2.
This space finds nothing wrong with the Leicester supporters being aggrieved about a potential FA Cup run scuppered with poor man management by Puel in terms of the in-match moves. It’s questionable to not bring Vardy, sure, but Puel has been consistent in that regards with the striker — even at considerable angst to gaffer, player and fan base.
A must-win sounds harsh, but a not-lose sounds more accurate. The good news is there appears to be such a margin of error regarding this chase for seventh with a rotating cast of characters among Leicester, Wolves, Everton, and West Ham United that one loss — even to a relegation-threatened side in Southampton — does not sound a death knell for those hopes. But a loss definitely adds to the irritability of those in the Midlands.
With Hasenhuttl not naming a starter between the sticks at his Friday news conference, the hedge is Gunn is going to be the one on the top of the team sheet when it is handed over. He looked calm and composed against Chelsea, and while it was smart to give him his Premier League debut at home, at some point, Gunn has to start on the road.
Why not here against an opponent playing in front of edgy home supporters? Why not now, because Southampton have played better as Hasenhuttl has blooded the kiddie corps. The Saints’ lack of offence up front and from anyone other than Redmond will probably be their undoing in this match, and not having Maya Yoshida (Asian Cup) in the back is going to be a problem against the irrepressible and tireless Vardy.
This is a game where his graft plus Maddison’s creativity separate the sides, who have already played two very close matches this season.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 1, Southampton 0.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 22 PREVIEWS
West Ham United (8-4-9) vs. Arsenal (12-5-4)
Brighton and Hove Albion (7-5-9) vs. Liverpool (17-3-1)
Chelsea (13-5-3) vs. Newcastle United (4-6-11)
Tottenham Hotspur (16-0-5) vs. Manchester United (11-5-5)