Let’s fo­cus, says Le­ices­ter’s Ranieri

Jamaica Gleaner - - SPORTS -

MANCH­ESTER, Eng­land (AP): LANCE AT the Cham­pi­ons League stand­ings and it would seem all is just fine at Le­ices­ter City this sea­son. Three matches. Three wins. No goals con­ceded. If only the de­fence of its English Pre­mier League ti­tle was go­ing so well. Few had ex­pected Le­ices­ter to repli­cate the feats of last sea­son, when the un­her­alded team from cen­tral Eng­land went from rel­e­ga­tion favourites to ti­tle win­ners in one of the most

Ga­maz­ing sto­ries in all of sports. Few, though, would have ex­pected such a drop-off in the league the fol­low­ing sea­son.

“When I think of the Pre­mier League, I’m very, very an­gry,” said Le­ices­ter’s usu­ally ami­able coach, Clau­dio Ranieri.

Le­ices­ter City head into Satur­day’s home match against Crys­tal Palace in 13th place in the 20-team league, hav­ing lost four of their open­ing eight games. The team only lost three league matches in the whole of last sea­son.

The most ob­vi­ous ex­pla­na­tion for the dras­tic dip in form is a change of fo­cus. This sea­son, it in­creas­ingly seems, is all about the Cham­pi­ons League, which Le­ices­ter are com­pet­ing in for the first time.

“It’s just psy­cho­log­i­cal,” Ranieri ex­plained. “Be­cause when we play in the Cham­pi­ons League, all the specials are switched on. You’re very, very smart, fo­cused in ev­ery sit­u­a­tion.”

The same can’t be said in the Pre­mier League. Le­ices­ter have lost to Liver­pool, Manch­ester United and Chelsea by three­goal mar­gins and also have been de­feated by pro­moted Hull. Their only wins have come against Burn­ley and Swansea, both of whom — like Hull — are among the con­tenders for rel­e­ga­tion.

There are other fac­tors to blame apart from a pre­oc­cu­pa­tion with the Cham­pi­ons League.

The loss of N’Golo Kante to Chelsea has hit Le­ices­ter hard. It felt at times like the en­er­getic Kante did the work of two play­ers in cen­tral mid­field last sea­son, pro­vid­ing pro­tec­tion for the de­fence and also a spring­board for the at­tack. Off-sea­son re­cruits Daniel Amartey and Nam­palys Mendy (cur­rently in­jured) just aren’t in Kante’s league.

As a con­se­quence, Le­ices­ter’s de­fence looks vul­ner­a­ble, with cen­tre backs Wes Mor­gan and Robert Huth exposed and mak­ing er­rors. That, how­ever, doesn’t ex­plain the team’s ten­dency to con­cede at set pieces this sea­son, which is sim­ply down to a lack of con­cen­tra­tion and awareness.

An­other fac­tor is Ranieri’s squad strength­en­ing over the sum­mer, which in­cluded sign­ing for­wards Ahmed Musa and Is­lam Sli­mani for what were club-record fees.

It has given the Ital­ian coach more op­tions for his lineup,but he might no longer know what his best team is.

Last sea­son, ev­ery­one knew Le­ices­ter’s first-choice lineup and Ranieri — nick­named ‘Tinker­man’ dur­ing his time at Chelsea — rarely ro­tated, but that has changed. Shinji Okazaki, for ex­am­ple, rarely starts now, and the Ja­pan for­ward was a key mem­ber of the ti­tle-win­ning team be­cause of his work rate, un­selfish­ness and qual­i­ties in link­ing the mid­field and at­tack.

Then there’s the dip in form of star play­ers from last sea­son — striker Jamie Vardy and winger Riyad Mahrez. Vardy has scored twice this sea­son, and not since Septem­ber 10, while Mahrez hasn’t been the same ef­fer­ves­cent force that once flus­tered de­fences. Have op­po­nents worked out how to play them?

A mid-ta­ble fin­ish in the Pre­mier League and get­ting to the knock­out stage of the Cham­pi­ons League would be ac­cept­able in this most un­usual of sea­sons for Le­ices­ter. But for Ranieri, the quicker the team gets to the 40-point mark — a fig­ure widely re­garded as the safety net against rel­e­ga­tion — the bet­ter.

CHELSEA VS MANCH­ESTER UNITED

Manch­ester United man­ager José Mour­inho re­turns to Stam­ford Bridge on Sun­day for the first time since get­ting fired by Chelsea in De­cem­ber, which ended his sec­ond spell at the Lon­don club. It will be the lat­est game in a tough pe­riod for United, who played away to Liver­pool on Mon­day and host Manch­ester City in the League Cup on Wed­nes­day. Mour­inho adopted a de­fen­sive, con­tain­ing ap­proach at Liver­pool, which eked out a 0-0 draw for United. He may do the same against a Chelsea team that has won both of their games since man­ager An­to­nio Conte switched to a three-man de­fence.

FILE

Ar­se­nal’s Alexis Sanchez (left) and Le­ices­ter City’s Robert Huth bat­tle for the ball dur­ing an English Pre­mier League match at the King Power Sta­dium in Le­ices­ter, Eng­land ear­lier this sea­son.

CLAU­DIO RANIERI

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