The pain is still raw and apparent in the Midlands, where the tears still flow over the tragic death of Leicester City owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in a helicopter crash as he was leaving King Power Stadium a fortnight ago.
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Saturday’s match against Burnley marks the first at King Power Stadium since the Foxes lost their owner, and emotions for players, staff and supporters will again be running high as the club prepares for the difficult task of honouring one of their own.
The tributes of flowers, scarves, cards and shirts have overwhelmed Filbert Way both physically – they wrap around the entire length of the stadium – and emotionally as the players and staff were often seen walking around the area in the days immediately following the crash that claimed four lives in addition to the Leicester City owner. The players also flew to Srivaddhanaprabha’s native Thailand during the week to pay their respects.
The club announced Wednesday they will begin relocating the tributes to a designated area near the southeast corner of King Power Stadium, close to the actual site of the crash which has been cleared to be used by investigators.
There will be other tributes ahead of the match, with a large number of supporters expected to walk from Jubilee Square to King Power Stadium. There will be a two-minute silence observed, with supporters requested to raise the scarves during that observance to honour the lives lost. There will also be what the team has called a “Tribute to Khun Vichai” video that will be played pre-match as the club and their supporters come to grips with all that has transpired in the past fortnight.
“It’s not easy to prepare this game, but the togetherness between us all, it’s a good feeling, a good energy, a fantastic strength,” said manager Claude Puel to the club’s official website. “Our strength, spirit and positive attitude, as well as the support of our fans, will be very important. We know our fans, they are fantastic… there were 3,000 of them at our last game in Cardiff, it was a fantastic reunion with the fans After the game, there was a lot of emotion that we shared with them and we can imagine what it will be like at home with 30,000 people in the stadium.”
“We have lost what feels like a family member and we wouldn’t have been here without him,” added keeper Kasper Schmeichel, who witnessed the crash, to The Times. “When he took over, this club was in a pretty precarious situation and to build what he built is amazing. It is one thing building a club and a team who can perform on the pitch but we are all a lot more proud of being part of the club he has created and the feeling he has instilled in everyone being welcomed.”
Some of the club’s catharsis was found last weekend in Wales, where Leicester City recorded a 1-0 victory over Cardiff City. Demarai Gray side-footed a cross from Ben Chilwell in the 55th minute for the match-winner, helping overcome the loss of standout centre back Harry Maguire.
The England international could be facing a lengthy spell out of action with a leg injury suffered in the first half-hour. Midfielder and top playmaker James Maddison will also miss this match and the England fixtures, though it is believed he will be able to return straightaway following the international break.
Jonny Evans is expected to take Maguire’s spot in central defence alongside Wes Morgan, while Marc Albrighton is the most likely replacement for Maddison in the middle of the park.
All the goings-on surrounding Leicester City could simply be pretext to an additional heaping of misery onto Burnley (2-2-7), who arrive in the Midlands having dropped three on the trot while shipping 13 goals. Though there is no shame in being overrun by reigning champions Manchester City and Chelsea, alarm bells were undoubtedly ringing after last weekend’s 4-2 defeat at West Ham United.
The Clarets pulled level twice at London Stadium, first through Jon Berg Gudmundsson at the end of the first half and through Chris Wood on 77 minutes, but a breakdown seven minutes later resulted in a go-ahead goal by the Hammers, who then put Burnley out of their misery with a fourth in stoppage time.
Burnley gaffer Sean Dyche, who was at King Power Stadium to scout Leicester City and West Ham the day of the helicopter crash, has been walking a delicate line between training his side for this match and being properly respectful of all that will take place around them.
“We will approach it in the best, most respectful way we can. That means letting the players know that the feeling of the day, predominantly, is going to be all about Leicester – and rightly so,” Dyche told the club’s official website. “I know their Director of Football, Jon Rudkin, who is someone I class as a friend, and I sent him a couple of texts saying that we will play any part we can, if needed.
“It is a horrible loss to the football club because I know all about that club. Being from Kettering, I’ve seen the changes, from when I was a kid to what it is now, and since the owners have been there as a family they have built a real connection with people there.”
That fine line has been difficult considering Burnley’s struggles, which have dropped them to 15th in the table and two points clear of the drop. The Clarets have yet to find their footing following a season that ended so positively with a Europa League berth, and Steven Defour knows his side has to kick on at some point to avoid being caught up in the relegation scrap.
“Each year we’ve had a bad spell at some point. The last two years we had a bad spell more in January and February,” the midfielder said. “We’re having it now and I hope we can close it as soon as possible and we can look up and kick on the season. Get back in our rhythm, get back to basics and the quality we had last year and everything will sort itself out.”
Burnley’s defence, which has already taken hits this year with the absences of Ben Gibson and Stephen Ward, could be further thinned without centre back James Tarkowski, who has been dealing with a groin issue nearly the entire season. Right back Phil Bardsley could be in line for a return, along with midfielder Jack Cork, as the latter missed his first league match last week with an ankle injury.
The home team won both matches last term, with Leicester City claiming a 1-0 victory on Gray’s sixth-minute goal. Burnley, though, have won two of the last three meetings after a 10-match winless stretch (0-3-7).
Per Ladbrokes, Leicester City are firm favourites to claim all three points with 1/2 odds, while the Clarets are 6/1 underdogs to stop the rot and pull out a victory. The odds of the teams sharing the points are 16/5.
The Foxes have 13/10 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals scored in this contest, and offer a 13/5 return for 1-0 or 2-0 scoreline. There are 4/1 odds for a 0-0 or 1-1 draw, while Burnley have 11/1 odds for a victory over the 2.5 goals threshold and 12/1 under it.
As expected, Jamie Vardy is the top choice among oddsmakers to score the first goal of the contest, fetching 11/4 odds. Teammates Kelechi Iheanacho and Shinjo Okazaki round out the top three places as both are 9/2, with Leicester’s Fousseni Diabate a surprising fourth option at 6/1, edging out Gray (13/2). Wood is the top pick for the visitors, with his 15/2 odds the same as “No Goal-scorer,” while Sam Vokes is further back at 17/2.
Vardy is better than even money to score over the course of the 90 minutes at 10/11, with Iheanacho (6/4) and Okazaki (13/8) among the limited options with shorter than 2/1 odds. Gray is fourth at 11/5, while Wood again leads the Burnley picks at 13/5.
How much more do they have left to give? While not trying to ask a mean-spirited question given the circumstances of the past fortnight, it is a fair question to ask of Puel and his Leicester City players. After their victory over Cardiff City, the players flew to Thailand almost straightaway to attend Srivaddhanaprabha’s funeral as part of the seven days of recitation ceremonies.
The whirlwind that has followed the passing of the Leicester City owner has been minimal in terms of distractions — the players have flown to Thailand and back to resume practice for this contest and Puel has said all the right things and has been an absolute pillar of strength to the Leicester community. The latter will be something keenly remembered since many of the supporters were not entirely sold on the Frenchman when he took over the club.
For this match, it is the two ends that will likely determine Leicester City’s chances for victory here — Schmeichel and Vardy. Of all the players on the club, Schmeichel has had the most to bear in some ways as being a witness to the crash. How he has processed the grief — he has said he has spoken to someone — is his alone to hold, but there will likely be an inspired effort from the Denmark international.
The same holds true for Vardy, who became the face of this franchise in their fairy tale run to the 2016 Premier League title. The relentless running, the tireless industry, the thrill of the chase, these are all things the striker has brought to the Midlands, and for 90 minutes on Saturday, he will likely deplete himself like few, if any times, over the course of his career. A goal from the former England international, regardless of rooting interests, would be something well-received.
In the grand scheme of the narrative of this match, Burnley are but extras, but they are also the right extras. There are few people other than Dyche who can put all this in a proper perspective as it relates to his side, and to his credit, he has done so in a first-class way. His Clarets, though, need a victory, and a defence that has struggled in quality through a lack of depth will get no respite from Vardy and Iheanacho, whose industry will need to compensate in the fall-off of playmaking quality from Maddison to Albrighton in the No. 10 role.
It is a match where the football is secondary, but a result is required. It sound trite to call a Leicester City victory a “happy ending,” but it is the one most fitting on this difficult day.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LEICESTER CITY 2, Burnley 0.
OTHER MATCH DAY 12 EPL PREVIEWS:
Huddersfield Town (1-3-7) vs. West Ham United (3-2-6)
Liverpool (8-3-0) vs. Fulham (1-2-8)
Chelsea (8-3-0) vs. Everton (5-3-3)
Manchester City (9-2-0) vs. Manchester United (6-2-3)