2018-19 EPL Match Day 8 Preview — Leicester City (4-0-3) vs. Everton (2-3-2)

Leicester City look to make it three wins on the spin in league play Saturday when they host an Everton side out to regroup after a disappointing exit from the Carabao Cup.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The Foxes (4-0-3) enter this contest in eighth place, just ahead of new boys Wolverhampton on goal difference and also reached the fourth round of the Carabao Cup by ousting Wolves on penalties nearly two weeks ago. Claude Puel’s team followed that match with a professional 2-0 road victory over struggling Newcastle United last Saturday.

Jamie Vardy struck a penalty on the half-hour after Newcastle defender DeAndre Yedlin handled Harry Maguire’s shot inside the 18, and Maguire rose highest to meet a corner by James Maddison in the 73rd minute. Leicester’s defence – powered by the central pairing of Maguire and talisman Wes Morgan – stifled the Magpies and limited them to one shot on target, a speculative 60-yard effort keeper Kasper Schmeichel comfortably caught under the crossbar.

Maguire will likely add to his 14 international caps following his recall to the Three Lions for the upcoming international break. This time the 21-year-old Maddison will join him at St. George, hoping to show manager Gareth Southgate the playmaking skills England are lacking in the midfield at the moment.

“We’re doing really well at the minute, there’s a great spirit around the place and training’s been really good and we’re keeping to high standards so long may that continue,” Maddison told LCFC TV while looking ahead to Everton. “They’ve spent a lot of money in recent years and they’ve got a good squad with a lot of quality and it’ll be a tough test, and it’ll be brilliant for us if we can go into the international break off the back of three wins in a row.

“That’s fantastic at any point of the Premier League if you get three in a row. We’ll work hard on the training pitch and we’ll go into that the best prepared we can.”

Puel will again be without Demarai Gray, who missed the win over Newcastle with an ankle injury suffered in the Carabao Cup. The Frenchman, though, has definitely found a comfort level with a 4-2-3-1 formation as Ricardo Pereira and Daniel Amartey have alternated at right back and right wing throughout the season.

Both Vardy and Maddison have two goals and an assist in Leicester’s last three league games, while Kelechi Iheanacho has a goal and two assists in that run.

Everton (2-3-2) are 11th in the table on nine points but have yet to find that next level to be competitive for those spots beyond the Big Six that could result in European play next term. The Toffees have one win in their last five matches in all competitions (1-2-2) and were dumped out of the Carabao Cup on penalties Tuesday at home against Southampton after a 1-1 draw.

Theo Walcott came off the bench to score the equaliser five minutes from time, but both he and Richarlison were unable to convert from the spot against Southampton keeper Angus Gunn, with the young keeper saving Walcott’s attempt after Everton counterpart Martin Stekelenburg gave the Toffees a lifeline with a save on Matt Targett’s try.

Given Everton were coming off their most complete win of the season last weekend – a 3-0 drubbing of Fulham – while Southampton had the sword taken to them by Liverpool with an identical scoreline – there is an eagerness among the Toffees to put aside the disappointment of this result.

“It’s a massive game against Leicester,” centre back Michael Keane told EvertonTV. “We had a good result at the weekend and we’re fully focused on that game now. We played some very good football in the Fulham game, especially in the second half, and we want to bring that into Saturday’s game.

“Against Southampton, I think some of the lads who haven’t been playing put in some good performances and showed what they can do – but there’s always room for improvement. Theo got that goal and we had a few half-chances towards the end but we couldn’t nick it. Then anything can happen in penalties.”

Lucas Digne is expected to reclaim his spot at left back for this match after being held out versus Southampton, but high-profile summer signing and centre back Yerry Mina is not expected to make his Everton debut until after the international break. The Colombia international had a recent setback recovering from the foot injury that has sidelined him to date, and Everton manager Marco Silva hinted he may schedule some closed door friendlies during the break to get Mina closer to match fitness.

Gylfi Sigurdsson, who had a second-half brace against Fulham after having thumped a penalty off the crossbar, has scored four goals in his last five matches across all competitions.

The home team won both matches last season, with Vardy and Gray scoring 11 minutes apart in the first half-hour at the Midlands. Leicester City are 4-0-3 in their last seven in all competitions versus Everton after winning just one of the first 18 matches (1-13-4) between the sides in the Premier League era.

Vardy has four goals and two assists in six lifetime matchups with the Toffees.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Leicester City are solid 23/20 favourites, with both the Toffees and a draw returning 23/10 odds for their respective selection. The Foxes have 12/5 odds to win with more than 2.5 goals in the match, while a 0-0 or 1-1 draw checks in behind that at 10/3. A low-scoring Leicester win is next at 4/1, followed by an Everton win over 2.5 goals (17/4) and under 2.5 goals (6/1). A 2-2 draw or higher is the longshot at 10/1.

Vardy is a clear favourite to make it 1-0, leading the line at 7/2. His attacking partners Maddison and Iheanacho are next at 6/1, and Richarlison is the top pick for Everton at 13/2. Despite his brace last week, Sigurdsson is further back at 17/2.

Vardy has 13/10 odds to score over the course of 90 minutes, with Maddison (2/1) edging out Iheanacho (21/10) for second. Richarlison is again the top pick for Toffees goal-scorers at 9/4, with Sigurdsson closer behind at 14/5.

PREDICTION

Leicester City are playing their best football of the season to date as Maddison has deservedly earned his call-up to England’s senior side for the upcoming international break. Had Vardy not opted to retire from international play, it is quite likely he would have joined Maguire and Maddison with the Three Lions.

Puel has his Foxes purring and a set rotation, curious shuffle of Amartey and Pereira on the right notwithstanding. Their spine is strong from Schmeichel out to Vardy, and while they may hit a ceiling below the top six, there is every reason to believe they can contend for that seventh spot and possibly higher if one of the evergreens slip.

Everton, on the other hand, can go from irresistible to uninspired and anywhere in between in a given match. While rotating a squad for the Carabao Cup can be forgiven, the fact the Toffees lost to a struggling Southampton side that overturned half their roster must be maddening to Silva. Mina cannot arrive to fortify the back four fast enough, and someone must emerge to lead the line (Bernard perhaps?) because both Dominic Calvert-Lewin and Cenk Tosun are currently not getting the job done.

One matchup to watch is in the midfield, where Maddison and Sigurdsson will clash. This will be a good test for the youngster ahead of his first call-up, facing a grizzled playmaker with loads of international experience for his country. Whichever one of the two gets more support from his respective supporting cast will likely emerge the winner, and given Leicester’s form, the hosts are in line to make it three on the bounce in league play.

PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: LEICESTER CITY 3, Everton 1

OTHER MATCH DAY 8 PREVIEWS:

Watford (4-1-2) vs. Bournemouth (4-1-2)
Manchester United (3-1-3) vs. Newcastle United (0-2-5)
Fulham (1-2-4) vs. Arsenal (5-0-2)
Liverpool (6-1-0) vs. Manchester City (6-1-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 7 — Newcastle United (0-2-4) vs. Leicester City (3-0-3)

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.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

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.

PREDICTION

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.

OTHER MATCH DAY 7 PREVIEWS:

West Ham United (1-1-4) vs. Manchester United (3-1-2)
Arsenal (4-0-2) vs. Watford (4-1-1)
Wolverhampton (2-3-1) vs. Southampton (1-2-3)
Chelsea (5-1-0) vs. Liverpool (6-0-0)

2018-19 EPL Match Day 4 Preview — Leicester City (2-0-1) vs. Liverpool (3-0-0)

Worth every bit the £65 million transfer thus far, Alisson looks to record a fourth clean sheet in as many Premier League matches as Liverpool put their 100 percent mark on the line Saturday at King Power Stadium against Leicester City.

POTENTIAL STARTING XIs

The one position where Jurgen Klopp clearly needed an upgrade despite Liverpool’s run to the Champions League final, Alisson became more of a need than a want when previous No. 1 Loris Karius made two of the biggest mistakes of his professional life on in that 3-1 defeat to Real Madrid.

Liverpool (3-0-0) were fortunate Alisson and Brasil made a quarterfinal exit at the World Cup since it did not drive AS Roma’s already exorbitant price tag higher. Still flush with cash following the sale of Philippe Coutinho to Barcelona the previous winter, the Reds had no trouble spending a then-record fee for their new No. 1.

Alisson’s presence has given Liverpool the freedom from asking their keeper to not lose a match and also trusting the Brasil international to occasionally win them one. That moment came versus Brighton and Hove Albion last weekend, when Alisson preserved a 1-0 victory by pushing Pacal Gross’ header around the right post on 88 minutes.

That made it three wins in three matches with nary a goal conceded. Liverpool have never started a Premier League season with four victories on the bounce, with the last occasion in 1990 when they won their opening eight First Division matches.

“Hopefully I will keep helping the team, it is about teamwork,” Alisson said to The Times. “I have my contribution, but I am not the main (one) responsible for the clean sheets. If we do not concede, we will be close to winning because our attack is really good.

“I’m very comfortable at the club, in a great environment, with everybody pushing in the same direction to win. We’ve shown what we are capable of and, hopefully, we can keep on track.”

He also showed off his deft dribbling skills, popping a back pass from Virgil Van Dijk in the air over charging Brighton forward Anthony Knockaert before coolly playing it out from the back. It’s one of those little hints of swagger Liverpool must hold if they are to derail Manchester City’s bid to repeat as league champions.

“We feel good, but the most important thing is that we’re going to try to feel as good for a long time,” midfielder Giorginio Wijnaldum told Liverpool’s official website. “The Premier League has just started and everything can happen. We are all confident, as we were last season, but we must not look too far ahead.”

Also influential has been centre back Virgil Van Dijk. The Netherlands international has been part of 10 clean sheets in 17 league matches since his January arrival, and Liverpool have conceded just nine goals in those contests. As Dejan Lovren continues to recover from a pelvic injury, Van Dijk has formed a solid partnership with Joe Gomez, who is on the verge of a call-up to England’s national squad during the international break.

Klopp will likely keep his starting XI unchanged for a fourth straight match, though he would also prefer right back Trent Alexander-Arnold not pick up a yellow card for a fourth consecutive match and put himself on the edge of a one-match ban.

Leicester City (2-0-1) have won three on the trot in all competitions following their season-opening loss at Manchester United. Claude Puel played a calculated gamble in Tuesday’s Carabao Cup match versus League One side Fleetwood Town, starting striker Kelechi Iheanacho amid eight changes from a 2-1 win at Southampton last weekend in hopes of jump-starting his season.

It worked as the Nigeria international bagged his first goal of the season and hit the woodwork on two other occasions in the 4-0 romp as both defender Christian Fuchs and midfielder Vicente Iborra contributed a goal and an assist.

“I am satisfied about the performance, it was a strong performance,” Puel told LCFC TV. “They were fantastic goals, they gave a good feeling for our fans, and it is important to see this kind of performance because all the squad delivered very well.”

Iheanacho is expected to lead the line once more with Jamie Vardy serving the last of his three-match ban for a direct red card. Summer signing Rachid Ghezzal continued his transition to English football from Lyon with a well-taken goal in the 71st minute in his first Foxes start.

“It’s important to keep for the quality of the team,” said Ghezzal, who came off the bench in two of Leicester’s first three league matches. “It was very important for us to make a great game, for intensity, for quality, because the players who play know they may have a long time to play another game.”

Puel is likely to stick with his 4-2-3-1, with Ricardo Pereira likely to stay advanced on the right side in front of Daniel Amartey. The two had swapped spots in the first two matches, but Pereira was more forward in last week’s win versus Southampton.

Liverpool did the double over Leicester City last season after losing 2-0 to them in the third round of the Carabao Cup. Salah accounted for three of the five goals in the wins, bagging a brace in a 2-1 victory at Anfield and the other in a 3-2 triumph in the Midlands in which Vardy was stoned on a potential tying penalty by Simon Mingolet.

PUNTERS’ NOTES

Per Ladbrokes, Liverpool are solid favourites at 2/5 odds despite being in the Midlands, while Leicester City have 13/2 odds on taking all three points. The odds of the teams splitting the points are 7/2.

For the match result plus over/under 2.5 goals, Liverpool and over is the punters’ favourite at 21/20, followed by Liverpool and the under (29/10). There is more belief in a 1-1 or 0-0 draw (24/5) than a Leicester City win and over (11/1).

Unsurprisingly, Salah leads the pack for first goal-scorers at 13/5, with Daniel Sturridge 4/1 and both Firmino and Mane at 5/1. Iheanacho is the top option for the Foxes at 17/2, followed by James Maddison and Shinji Okazaki (10/1). Salah has better-than-even money odds to score at some point during the match at 3/4, while Firmino (8/5) narrowly edges out Mane (17/10).

On the Leicester side of the toteboard, Iheanacho returns 13/5 odds and Maddison 16/5.

PREDICTION

Liverpool’s offence has been gummed up slightly the last two matches, but it has not mattered all that much because the defence has played well. Gomez in particular responded positively to the challenge Brighton presented last weekend at Anfield and while his partnership with Van Dijk may be through after the international break, he still has one more match to run.

Puel’s gamble with Iheanacho mid-week was an interesting one considering Leicester City had come off a road win at Southampton. But it paid off, and now the Nigeria international has to follow it up with another strong performance. The Foxes have a strong spine among Harry Maguire, Wes Morgan, Wilfred Ndidi and Nampalys Mendy that a turnover similar to the one Liverpool created for their lone goal against Brighton should not happen, especially at home.

Not having Vardy around to hassle and harass Liverpool’s back line is going to loom large, but look for Pereira to test Andy Roberson down the right side for the Foxes. If he and Maddison can link through the middle of the park, there may be space for the Portugal wing to try and pick out Iheanacho with a cross.

This will be a tougher road test for Klopp’s side than Crystal Palace, even with the absence of Vardy, but his absence is also going to be why Liverpool continue their perfect start.

Predicted final score: Leicester City 1, LIVERPOOL 2.

Other Match Day 4 previews:

Chelsea (3-0-0) vs. Bournemouth (2-1-0)
West Ham United (0-0-3) vs. Wolverhampton (0-2-1)
Manchester City (2-1-0) vs. Newcastle United (0-1-2)
Watford (3-0-0) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (3-0-0)

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