Ranieri calls for Le­ices­ter fo­cus in stum­bling ti­tle de­fence

Malta Independent - - SPORT -

Glance 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 de­fense of its English Premier League ti­tle was go­ing so well.

Few ex­pected Le­ices­ter to repli­cate the feats of last sea­son, when the un­her­alded team from cen­tral Eng­land went from rel­e­ga­tion fa­vorites to ti­tle win­ners in one of the most amaz­ing 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 heads into Satur­day’s home match against Crys­tal Palace in 13th place in the 20team league, hav­ing lost four of its 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 is 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 has lost to Liver­pool, Manch­ester United and Chelsea by three-goal mar­gins and also has been de­feated by pro­moted Hull. Its 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 de­fense and also a spring­board for the at­tack. Off­sea­son re­cruits Daniel Amartey and Nam­palys Mendy (cur­rently in­jured) just aren’t in Kante’s league.

As a con­se­quence, Le­ices­ter’s de­fense looks vul­ner­a­ble, with cen­ter 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 clu­brecord 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 10 Septem­ber, while Mahrez hasn’t been the same ef­fer­ves­cent force that once flus­tered de­fenses. Have op­po­nents worked out how to play them?

To­day Bournemouth-Tot­ten­ham ...................... Arse­nal-Mid­dles­brough ......................... Burn­ley-Ever­ton ..................................... Hull-Stoke .............................................. Le­ices­ter-Crys­tal Palace ......................... Swansea-Wat­ford ................................... West Ham-Sun­der­land ........................... Liver­pool-West Brom ............................. To­mor­row Man City-Southamp­ton ......................... Chelsea-Man Utd ...................................

Cham­pi­onship

Yes­ter­day Bur­ton-Birm­ing­ham .......................... 2-0 To­day As­ton Villa-Ful­ham ................................. Brent­ford-Barns­ley ................................. Bris­tol City-Black­burn ............................ Hud­der­s­field-Derby ............................... New­cas­tle-Ip­swich ................................. Nor­wich-Pre­ston .................................... Rother­ham-Read­ing ............................... Sh­effield W.-QPR .................................... Wi­gan-Brighton ...................................... Wolves-Leeds ......................................... Nottm For­est-Cardiff ..............................

League One

To­day Brad­ford-Sh­effield Utd ........................... Ch­ester­field-Scun­thorpe ........................ Coven­try-Rochdale ................................. Gilling­ham-Charl­ton ............................... Mill­wall-Fleet­wood ................................ MK Dons-Southend ................................ Old­ham-Bris­tol Rovers ........................... Peter­bor­ough-Wim­ble­don ..................... Port Vale-Ox­ford Utd ............................. Shrews­bury-Northamp­ton ..................... Swin­don-Wal­sall ....................................

League Two

To­day Black­pool-Don­caster .............................. Colch­ester-More­cambe ......................... Craw­ley-Ac­cring­ton ................................ Crewe-Yeovil .......................................... Ex­eter-Cambridge .................................. Grimsby-Chel­tenham ............................. Hartle­pool-Ley­ton Ori­ent ....................... Lu­ton-Mans­field ..................................... New­port-Ply­mouth ................................ Portsmouth-Notts County ...................... Steve­nage-Carlisle ................................. Wy­combe-Bar­net ...................................

SCOT­LAND

Clau­dio Ranieri

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