2018-19 EPL Match Day 1 Preview: Manchester United (0-0-0) vs. Leicester City (0-0-0)

(Writer’s Note: This preview can be seen in a text-only format at STATS Hosted Solutions site. I am adding edits, projected starting lineups, odds-related picks and a final score prediction for the match in this blog.)

It is difficult enough for teams to open the season following a World Cup because rotations are out of sync due to player availability.

Add that to the usual third-season chaos Jose Mourinho has had at his previous coaching stops, and you have a recipe for combustion as Manchester United head into Friday night’s Premier League opener versus Leicester City at Old Trafford.

POTENTIAL STARTING LINEUPS

United (25-6-7 in 2017-18) finished distant runners-up to eternal rivals Manchester City, 19 points adrift despite their highest point total (81) in five seasons. It was the club’s best finish since Sir Alex Ferguson made his farewell with his 13th Premier League title in 2013, but there was no silverware for Mourinho after winning the Carabao Cup and Europa League in 2017.

United – similar to other high-profile European clubs – had multiple first-team players participate in the World Cup this summer. Seven of the 11 players who went to Russia reached at least the semifinals.

Of those 11, Marcus Rashford and Phil Jones (England), David De Gea (Spain) and Victor Lindelof (Sweden) are expected to be available for this match. Nothing definitive has been offered regarding the status of Belgium teammates Romelu Lukaku and Marouane Fellaini and England duo Ashley Young and Jesse Lingard.

“Rashford will be in a better situation than (Tuesday),” Mourinho told MUTV on Tuesday. “Lindelof the same, Jones the same and let’s see if one of the others is ready to give us a help, 20-25 minutes. Any help that can come from them, is welcome.”

Midfielder Paul Pogba won the title with France, and while he will not play this match, things are tense between him and Mourinho. The United boss offered a backhanded compliment by saying the World Cup “is the perfect habitat for a player like him to give (their best),” to ESPN FC.

This was a pointed observation considering Mourinho spent last season trying to slot Pogba into the type of midfield partnership with Nemanja Matic that France manager Didier Deschamps successfully achieved with Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante.

Mourinho made those comments while United toured the United States. He often cut a frustrated and angry figure between poor performances and the lack of first-team players available. He railed about both following a 4-1 loss to Liverpool in Michigan in which he told The Independent, “We start the game with almost half the players who are not even going to belong on our squad on August 9 (the transfer deadline day). So what did this game give me? Nothing. Nothing at all.”

These comments could be one-time snipes and aggravations, but they also fit Mourinho’s track record when things go pear-shaped in season three. It happened in 2007 in his first stint with Chelsea after winning the Premier League title the season before. A falling out within the locker room with Real Madrid star players including Cristiano Ronaldo marked his third and final season at the Bernabeu in 2013.

And most recently, the third season during his second go-round at Chelsea – again after winning a Premier League title the season before – was so toxic another parting of the ways resulted after nine losses in the first 16 league matches in 2015-16.

But Mourinho is not in jeopardy. His frustration also stems from United chairman Ed Woodward’s failure to land many of the players Mourinho sought in this summer’s transfer window. That shortcoming is magnified by Thursday’s close of the England window compared to the FIFA calendar, which runs until the end of August.

United’s biggest signing was a £47 million transfer for midfielder Fred from Shakhtar Donetsk, who missed out on playing for Brazil at the World Cup due to a knee injury suffered in the tournament run-up. Starlet Diogo Dalot came over from FC Porto with a £19 million price tag, but the 19-year-old will likely start the season behind Antonio Valencia at right back.

With both nursing injuries, though, it is expected Lindelof will get the start at right back. Jones provides depth in central defense in the event Eric Bailly is unable to go after picking up a knock, and Andreas Perreira slots into the defensive midfield role with Matic sidelined by injury.

One marquee player Mourinho will have is attacking winger Alexis Sanchez, who starts his first full season at Old Trafford after arriving from Arsenal in January. His industry will be vital in the early part of the season, especially until Lukaku is ready to return and lead the line.

While United’s star players will eventually return, Leicester City (12-11-15) move on without top playmaker Riyad Mahrez. The Algeria international made his long-sought jump to Manchester City, with the Foxes wrangling a £60 million transfer fee from the reigning champions after a deal fell through in January.

The jury remains out on manager Claude Puel despite guiding Leicester City to a top-half finish following the sacking of Craig Shakespeare. The Foxes won just five of their final 21 (5-6-10) league matches, and filling Mahrez’s role may require multiple players.

James Maddison is expected be first in line, but another option is Mahrez’s compatriot Rachid Ghezzal, who has been reunited with Puel from their Lyon days after a £12 million transfer from Ligue 1 side AS Monaco on Sunday.

“I know the coach and I know his work and I like it,” Ghezzal told Leicester City’s official website. “I want to be here. It’s a good club with many ambitions and many great players. I think I will make a great season.”

Two of those “great players” – defender Harry Maguire and striker Jamie Vardy – may not be available after playing for England. Maguire boosted his stock immensely in that run to the semifinals while in Russia, with Leicester City valuing the centre back at £65 million and rebuffing United’s advances.

Leicester City were active in the summer window, adding promising attacking midfielder Maddison from Norwich City and right back Ricardo Pereira – who played for Puel at Nice – from FC Porto for nearly £50 million combined. The Foxes added to their depth in central defense with veteran Jonny Evans from relegated West Bromwich Albion.

If Vardy – a 20-goal scorer last term – is unavailable, Puel has Kelechi Iheanacho to lead the line. He was on Nigeria’s roster for the World Cup, but fellow Super Eagle Ahmed Musa left for Saudi side Al-Nassr last Saturday. Shinji Okazaki and Islam Slamini remain options as a second striker for Puel.

This is the second straight season Leicester City are playing the league’s Friday night opener, having lost 4-3 at Arsenal in 2017-18. Manchester United are unbeaten in the last seven between the teams (4-3-0), though Maguire rescued a point for the 10-man Foxes with a stoppage-time equaliser that resulted in a 2-2 draw at King Power Stadium on Dec. 23.

United are unbeaten in their last nine (7-2-0) at Old Trafford versus Leicester City since a 1-0 defeat Jan. 31, 1998, and 15-7-2 in the Premier League era. The Red Devils are also 19-5-2 in Premier League home openers, losing only to Everton in 1992 and Swansea City in 2014.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Manchester United are a solid favorite at 4/9 odds to win, while Leicester City check in at 6/1. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 3/1.

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Sanchez offers a good return at 10/3 odds as the first goal-scorer and 6/5 odds as anytime scorer, and his industry offers a good chance of the match’s first goal being scored on a defensive breakdown by Leicester City. That rates him as a better option than Rashford (7/2) and Juan Mata (11/2) among likely United starters for first goal-scorer.

The Chilean has four goals in six lifetime matches versus the Foxes but none in the last three since banging a hat trick in Arsenal’s 5-2 win at King Power Stadium in the 2015-16 season.

A potential parlay could be taking both teams to score (27/10) with a 2-1 Manchester United scoreline (15/2). While he is listed on the right flank of the 4-3-3, it would not be surprising to see Mata track back into the middle of the park to link with Fred and Herrera, giving Rashford the opportunity to use his pace to run at defenders and create scoring chances.

PREDICTION

Both sides are far from a finished product, but both defensive midfielders — Wilfred Ndidi for Leicester City and Andres Perreira — are both going to have to put in heavy shifts to put out fires in front of their back lines. Ndidi has grown into this role since the Foxes parted ways with Kante, while Andres Perreira has not had as many opportunities to do so since Matic stepped into the role last season.

Also of note is how Lindelof transitions to right back for this match after a summer of manning a centre back spot for Sweden if Valencia is unable to play. United will do well to work through Sanchez on the left as it serves the double effect of pinning back Ricardo Perreira on the right.

It seems likely both Lukaku and Vardy will be introduced as match-changers for the final half-hour depending on the scoreline, and it would not be surprising to see Maguire starting the match despite Puel’s claims the England duo will not be in the first XI. Given how last season’s lid-lifter was a chaotic seven-goal affair, there should be multiple goals and another win for the home side.

Prediction: Manchester United 2, Leicester City 1

2018-19 EPL Team-by-Team Previews: Leicester City (July 29)

(Writer’s Note: This is the 12th of what will hopefully be 20 team previews in 20 days. Or at the very least, all 20 teams prior to the 2018-19 Premier League’s season-opener between Manchester United and Leicester City on August 10. Links to previous teams can be found at the bottom of the page)

LEICESTER CITY FOXES

Manager: Claude Puel (Hire Date: Oct. 25, 2017)
Tenure Length: 14th/20 in Premier League and 49th/92 in Top 4 leagues of English football
2017-18 Record: 12-11-15, 47 points, 9th in Premier League
2017-18 Goals scored: 56
2017-18 Goal Difference: minus-4
Number of Current Consecutive Seasons in Premier League: 5 (includes 2018-19)
Last Promotion: 2014
Last Relegation: 
2008 (Championship to League One)
2017-18 Carabao Cup: Quarterfinal loss on penalties (Manchester City)
2017-18 FA Cup: Quarterfinal loss after extra time (Chelsea)

2017/18 REVIEW

It was a rough start for Leicester City, which had a brutal gauntlet to open the season with losses to Arsenal, Manchester United, Chelsea and Liverpool among its first seven matches. But it was the draw at struggling West Bromwich Albion that proved a bridge too far for ownership as Craig Shakespeare was sacked in mid-October.

Claude Puel, who was jettisoned after one season at Southampton despite an eighth-place finish in 2016-17, stepped into the vacant coaching spot. The Foxes responded with five wins and points in seven of its next eight matches, with the lone blemish a 2-0 loss to Manchester City.

Leicester City struggled in December, with the low point a tough exit on penalties to City in the quarterfinals of the Carabao Cup, but the turn of the calendar year saw a positive bounce with seven points in league play and FA Cup victories over Fleetwood Town and Peterborough United. The Foxes hit their high-water mark of seventh place on Jan. 24 after beating Watford 2-0 on goals by Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

But a five-match winless spell in league play followed, with draws in three consecutive home matches, and the Foxes’ FA Cup run ended with a loss after extra time to Chelsea in the quarters. Despite taking just four points in the final seven matches (1-1-5), Leicester City was able to stay above the struggling bottom half of the table the entire time.

The Foxes sealed their top-half status with a 3-1 win over Arsenal in their penultimate match, then concluded the season with a wild 5-4 loss at Tottenham Hotspur in which they squandered a 3-1 lead and nearly stole a point before being done in by Harry Kane in the final quarter-hour.

POTENTIAL STARTING XI

Leicester City Lineup

 

One thing which stands out for Leicester City is the flexibility Puel has with wide backs Ben Chillwell and new acquisition Ricardo Pereira. While the Foxes have played with four in the back in the preseason, it seems possible Leicester City could hybrid into a 3-5-2 set-up.

Kasper Schmeichel is the unquestioned No. 1 after backstopping Denmark to the round of 16 at the World Cup, and Harry Maguire is coming off a standout performance for England in Russia that has skyrocketed his value to over £65 million as the Foxes are fighting off potential suitors, most notably opening-match opponent Manchester United.

Evans adds another capable veteran to the back line, while Fuchs would flank Maguire on the right behind Pereira, another player who saw his stock rise in Russia while playing for Portugal. On the left in front of Evans is Ben Chillwell, who has shown plenty of promise at the club while progressing through England’s youth program.

The midfield is where it gets messy or interesting depending on how you view your glass. Wilfred Ndidi remains as the defensive midfield stopper, and Puel could pair him with Vicente Iborra or Adrien Silva, whose adventurous transfer saga delayed his Midlands debut until January.

Nampalys Mendy provides depth at both positions, but who will fill the large playmaking boots of Mahrez is a question that has no set answer and plenty of possible ones.

Marc Albrighton could get first crack at the most forward role, though it is also possible Silva could feature there. Newcomer James Maddison has the potential to carve out some playing time, and Daniel Amartey could prove an interesting flex option if Puel wants to try something that would resemble a 3-4-2-1 set-up with Jamie Vardy as a sole striker.

Vardy will again lead the line, but there is competition for the underneath role among Kelechi Iheanacho and his Nigerian compatriot Ahmed Musa. The tireless Shinji Okazaki again serves a useful third striker role off the bench, and there are reports Islam Slimani will be off-loaded, perhaps to Fenerbahce, before the start of the season.

While Puel claimed he had a lineup in mind for the opener versus Manchester United after a preseason loss to Udinese, he does not lack for options or potential combinations throughout his starting XI.

THE NEW GUYS AND THE GONE GUYS

Leicester City made a raft of signings over the summer, but the move everyone will rightfully focus on is the departure of Mahrez to Manchester City for £60 million. That ended a protracted saga which should have ended in the January window and lasted almost two entire seasons after the Foxes won the Premier League title in 2016.

His absence creates a huge playmaking void that no one signing can replace. The hope is Madisson can eventually be that player after coming over from Norwich City on a £22 million move, but the 21-year-old England youth product may be a season away from taking on the role full-time and should fare well as an understudy to Albrighton.

After losing backup keeper Ben Hamer, Leicester City signed Danny Wood after he became surplus to goods at Liverpool following its record signing of Alisson. The Foxes shored up their central defence with the signing of Evans after his relegation clause was activated at West Brom, and the move to a three-man backline was put into high gear with the £24 million acquisition of Pereira, the Portugal international who spent last season at Porto after two seasons on loan at Nice, including the 2015-16 season under Puel.

THE GUY WORTH SEEING

Jamie Vardy (F)

The cult hero of the Midlands and the poster boy for hard work to climb the rungs of the football ladder, Vardy continued to bang those who “chat shit” after ringing up 20 goals in league play for the second time in three seasons, giving him 57 in 108 matches over that span and 63 in 128 overall.

He will obviously miss Mahrez’s creativity as the two operated on a wavelength few could match in Europe, let alone just the Premier League, but Vardy’s work rate has never failed him in his climb to the top, and that will still be the case after helping England reach the World Cup semifinals this summer. He may take a small step back in terms of the final number of goals, but undervalue him at your own risk.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Oddsmakers are fairly confident Leicester City will not be part of the relegation scrap, offering 14/1 odds on the Foxes being dropped, pegging them as the best team outside the top seven. They have the third-shortest odds to finish in the top 10 at 4/6 and are even money to place 11th or worse.

Leicester City is getting 7/1 odds for a top-six finish, again the favorite outside the standard seven, while a top-four finish is 33/1, behind promoted Wolverhampton outside the top seven.

Vardy is 13th to take home the Premier League’s Golden Boot with 33/1 odds, level with Manchester City’s Leroy Sane and Raheem Sterling.

FIRST FOUR MATCHES/LAST FOUR MATCHES

Aug. 10 — Manchester United (2nd) A
Aug. 18 — Wolverhampton (N/A) H
Aug. 25 — Southampton (17th) A
Sept. 1 — Liverpool (4th) H
—————
April 20 — West Ham United (13th) A
April 27 — Arsenal (6th) H
May 4 — Manchester City (1st) A
May 12 — Chelsea (5th) H

OUTLOOK

On one hand, it feels like Puel being in charge in the Midlands is a return to Leicester City’s counterattacking roots Cluadio Ranieri developed in its fairy-tale run to the 2016 title, but on the other hand, two seasons removed from all the dirty work N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater performed that campaign shows just how much further Ndidi and Iborra have to develop to bring the Foxes to an elite level.

That task is made all the more difficult without Mahrez, and Leicester City’s attack is more of a jigsaw puzzle in the middle Puel must figure out with the border already solved in Vardy.

The Foxes should be fairly strong in the spine this season after the superb summers of both Schmeichel and Maguire; the key for Puel will be to make sure Chillwell and Pereira remember their defensive responsibilities out wide in support and being disciplined in the timing of their upfield thrusts.

While the start of their schedule is challenging, playing top teams who are loaded with World Cup regulars working their way back into shape could prove to be beneficial for Leicester City. But the Foxes’ run-in is diabolical, even before factoring in pundits pegging West Ham to punch above its weight compared to last season.

This season will be a work in progress for Leicester City, which can ill-afford a coaching merry-go-round for the third straight season. The sooner the Foxes find a consistent replacement for Mahrez’s playmaking duties in the midfield, the better, but look for this team to be a defence-first outfit in the early going before getting into gear offensively.

PREDICTED FINISH

13th place

PREVIOUS TEAMS’ PREVIEWS

July 18 — Fulham                                      July 28 — Newcastle United
July 19 — Cardiff City                               July 29 — Leicester City
July 20 — Wolverhampton                      July 30 — Everton
July 21 — Southampton                           July 31 — Burnley
July 22 — Huddersfield Town                August 1 — Arsenal
July 23 — Brighton and Hove Albion   August 2 — Chelsea
July 24 — Watford                                    August 3 — Liverpool
July 25 — West Ham United                   August 4 — Tottenham Hotspur
July 26 — Bournemouth                          August 5 — Manchester United
July 27 — Crystal Palace                          Auugst 6 — Manchester City

 

2018 World Cup Recap Match 60 — Sweden 0, England 2 (July 7)

England claimed its first World Cup semifinal berth in 28 years as goals by Harry Maguire and Dele Alli powered a clinical 2-0 victory over Sweden on Saturday in Samara.

The young Three Lions, coming off a draining victory on penalties over Colombia, played the perfect opponent in terms of style of play to avoid suffering. England had a majority of the possession and kept Sweden under wraps for long portions of the contest.

When the Blagult did create scoring chances after a meek opening 45 minutes, England keeper Jordan Pickford was more than equal to the task as his heroics from the previous round created an aura of self-confidence and invincibility Sweden could not break.

Through to their first World Cup semifinals since 1990 in Italy and just their third overall, the Three Lions will face the winner of the Russia-Croatia match Wednesday in Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow with a spot in the finals at stake.

For all the talk of how England would be better served about being in the weaker half of the draw by virtue of its loss to Belgium to cap group play, Gareth Southgate’s side was a deserved winner in Samara and is now surprisingly one win from a rematch in which the sides would play their first XI instead of their second with everything at stake as opposed to nothing.

Sweden was denied its first World Cup semifinal appearance since 1994, in large part due to a toothless offense that failed to find any space to navigate on the counter. The Blagult, who had done so well to get to this point — handing France its only loss in qualifying, placing ahead of the Netherlands in that group to claim a playoff spot, eliminating Italy in that two-legged clash to book a spot in Russia and then finishing atop a group that felled defending champion Germany — lacked quality on the ball and conceded twice after yielding the same amount of goals in their first four matches.

England’s mastery of set pieces continued with Maguire’s bullet header on the half-hour. The Leicester City defender rose above Emil Forsberg to meet Ashley Young’s corner from the left and powered his header from 12 yards into the lower left corner for his first international goal and England’s eighth off set pieces in Russia.

Alli’s close-range header in the 58th minute capped a sustained spell of pressure as an unhurried Jesse Lingard was able to pick out the Tottenham Hotspur attacking midfielder at the far post with a well-placed cross, and he put it over Robin Olsen’s gloves for his third international goal and first since qualifying against Malta in October 2016.

Pickford made three saves in the second half, none more important than the one in the 47th minute when he dove to his left and clawed out a downward header by Marcus Berg as Sweden tried to find its way back into the match for an equalizer. The Everton No. 1 also denied the Blagult a lifeline after Alli’s goal, diving to his right to parry a shot by Viktor Claesson in the 62nd minute.

Pickford preserved his clean sheet for all intents and purposes in the 72nd minute, tipping Berg’s shot from 12 yards over the bar.

Southgate kept his starting XI from the Colombia match as both Alli and Young were able to shake off knocks picked up against Los Cafeteros. It was an unsurprisingly cagey opening, with Sweden content to sit back and examine what England would do with the ball.

Alli created a half chance in the seventh minute when he picked Emil Krafth’s pocket on the left side, but his through ball trying to pick out Harry Kane was too far forward. Walker failed to test Robin Olsen with a 20-yard shot from the right in the 11th minute as the Sweden keeper caught it comfortably.

The Blagult had their first meaningful counter in the 13th minute, but Berg blazed well over from 25 yards.

Though his scoring drought continued and will be a talking point leading up to Wednesday’s semifinal, Raheem Sterling’s pace proved to be menacing to Sweden’s back line. A defensive lapse allowed Sterling to hare away through the midfield. He cut to his left and his dribble became a pass to Kane, who dragged his low shot from 20 yards wide of the left post in the 19th minute.

England had a penalty shout in the 23rd minute when Sterling banged a cross of Forsberg’s arm, but the Swedish midfielder had that right arm tucked and referee Bjorn Kuipers waved play on.

Walker took a sharp-angled shot on the right that Olsen comfortably smothered. Both teams were doing well to negate the other, with Sweden’s positioning allowing few threatening chances and England refusing to let the Blagult build any momentum when gaining possession on the counter.

Krafth — playing in the place of suspended right back Mikael Lustig — gave away the corner that led to Maguire’s goal with a headed clearance. England stayed on the front foot after taking the lead, working the ball wide on both flanks to let Young and Kieran Tripper pump in crosses.

Forsberg found a rare pocket of space on the left in the 42nd minute, but his right-footed cross went right to Pickford, complete with a comfortable bounce to make the catch.

Trippier came close to picking out Sterling over the top, but Sweden’s central defense was alert to the danger and hacked it clear. Sterling again latched onto a long ball — this time by Henderson — but Olsen got a hand to the ball when he tried to round the Sweden keeper. The Man City striker was able to get possession and tried for a second bite at the apple, but Granqvist had gotten back to deflect the shot over the line for a corner.

By the time Kuipers blew his whistle to end the first 45 minutes, the Three Lions had every reason to believe they would end their semifinal hoodoo considering they had conceded only one shot and allowed Sweden just one touch in their penalty area.

Sweden immediately started the second half with intent, but Pickford came up big with a powerful left-handed save as Berg towered over Young. Lingard earned England a corner on the right in the 57th minute when Krafth deflected his shot over the end line, but Trippier’s out-swinger was flicked out of the area.

The Three Lions continued to pin Sweden in its own third and Lingard’s perfect curling cross was met with a pinpoint header by Alli, a just reward for the sustained spell of pressure as Olsen was too late in sliding over. It was also the fifth headed goal of the tournament for England, two more than any other side.

Pickford then came up with his second big save, with Sweden putting together its best offensive moment of the match as Claesson started and ended the play with a shot off a layoff from Berg.

Janne Andersson’s double substitution in the 65th minute for the Blagult, introducing John Guidetti and Martin Olsson, failed to ignite Sweden’s offense as Pickford finished with his first clean sheet of the tournament.