Leicester City continue to defy the odds this season, but arguably their biggest test till date comes in the form of an away trip to title favourites Manchester City, who have the opportunity to go level on points with a win against the Foxes.
Leicester City’s season bears some resemblance to Atlético Madrid’s 2013/2014 La Liga campaign, in that with every passing week in which the Foxes pick up wins, pundits and fans are made to eat humble pie as they await a collapse — a collapse that, in Atléti’s case, never came. Perhaps Claudio Ranieri’s men should be seen as genuine title contenders, particularly given that the Premier League leaders on the first day of February have gone on to win the title for each of the last 11 seasons.
Meanwhile, Manchester City were being declared the champions elect after just five game of the season, but humiliating losses to the likes of Tottenham Hotspur and Liverpool have made Premier League fans reconsider their views. Manuel Pellegrini will want to sign off on his time at the Etihad on a positive note, and there are few better ways to begin an assault on the league title than beating the league leaders in front of the home supporters.
Manuel Pellegrini v Claudio Ranieri
Interestingly, the two managers have faced off in league competition before taking charge of their current clubs in the Premier League. In 2004-05, Ranieri’s Valencia got the better of Pellegrini’s Villarreal by a 2-1 scoreline at the Mestalla, but the Chilean got his revenge in the second half of the campaign, winning 3-1 at the Estadio El Madrigal.
The previous meeting between Leicester City and Manchester City ended in a goalless draw at the King Power Stadium, but Pellegrini would likely have been the more frustrated manager given his side’s dominance in the game. Saturday’s lunch-time kick-off presents the perfect opportunity for the 62-year-old to go ahead of Ranieri in their head-to-head record, and more importantly, to take charge of the title race.
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Pellegrini will try and use width to upset Leicester’s defensive organisation
‘The Tinkerman’ lived up to his moniker in the previous meeting between the two sides, changing his 4-4-2 to a 4-5-1, with the addition of Gökhan Inler to the midfield. Manchester City’s main strength under Pellegrini has been to develop play through the centre of the pitch — something they were unable to do quite as effectively due to the congestion in midfield.
Given Ranieri will once again try and deny City space in central areas, Pellegrini’s game plan might be to use the width of the pitch to stretch the Leicester midfield and defence laterally through the use of wingers Raheem Sterling and Jesús Navas, as well as full-backs Bacary Sagna and Aleksandar Kolarov.
Indeed, that is what brought them success in the game at the King Power stadium, with their best opportunity coming through the ball being played out wide to Kevin De Bruyne, who sent in a tantalising low cross for Sergio Agüero from the right. The Argentine missed that glorious opportunity, but the pattern of play was consistent with the game plan of working the ball out wide to stretch the Foxes’ extremely hard-working defensive set-up.
Direct football once again the mantra for Claudio Ranieri
Even though the Italian has gained a reputation for making unnecessary changes to formations and tactics throughout his career, the beauty of Leicester City’s rise has been the simplicity of their game plan and the consistency with which they have repeated certain patterns of play to devastating effect.
Manchester City had 61% of the possession in their previous meeting, nearly twice as many completed passes, final third passes, and shots (courtesy of FourFourTwo Stats Zone). That has been the case with several of Leicester’s opponents this season, but the Foxes have found a way to come out on top. Ranieri will know that his side will see little of the ball on Saturday afternoon, and his efforts will instead be focussed on counter-attacking with speed when the opportunity presents itself.
Premier League top scorer Jamie Vardy could be playing up front on his own again, and the league leaders will aim to release him behind the City defence with balls over the top when possible. Their chances this weekend will heavily rely on being defensively resolute, but the likes of Vardy and Riyah Mahrez will also have to be clinical to finish off any opportunities they might create on the break.
Sergio Agüero v Wes Morgan/Robert Huth
The Argentina superstar has been in outstanding form of late, scoring six goals in his last four appearances for Manchester City in all competitions. The Citizens’ title hopes rest largely on his fitness for the rest of the season, and the win over Sunderland in midweek was a perfect example of why that is the case. Agüero, who has a better goals per minute ratio than any other striker in the league — a goal ever 95 minutes — scored the only goal at the Stadium of Light, giving Pellegrini’s side a crucial three points.
His movement in the box as well as his innate ability to find space in front of goal is second to none in the division, and Leicester’s centre-back pairing of Morgan and Huth will have to make sure they remain alert throughout the game to try to deny Agüero the opportunity to slip away and have a shot on goal.
David Silva v N’golo Kanté
Kanté has been among the best midfielders in the Premier League this season, and as the engine of a table-topping Leicester City side, his role on Saturday will be extremely crucial to the Foxes’ cause. David Silva’s creative abilities in the final third of the pitch are exceptional, and the Spaniard has the ability to find pockets of space in between defence and midfield in which to pick up the ball.
Along with his midfielder partner Danny Drinkwater, Kanté has to ensure that Silva does not have time on the ball, particularly in and around the box. Manchester City are among the best teams in the division at working the channels between centre-back and full-back, and Silva is key to their interplay in such situations.
The Frenchman has to track the playmaker’s movement in these areas and close him down as effectively as he can. With Kevin de Bruyne not around for the Citizens, keeping Silva quiet will only increase pressure on the hosts to find different pathways to goal, and that could lead to mistakes from which Leicester can benefit.
Eliaquim Mangala/Nicolás Otamendi v Jamie Vardy
After scoring one of the goals of the 2015-16 Premier League season against Liverpool in midweek, Vardy will be chomping at the bit to run at a Manchester City back four that has shown itself to be vulnerable this season to pace and clever movement. With 18 goals this campaign, the Foxes’ frontman is starting to pull away from the chasing pack, and City’s centre-back pairing will have to be at their best to stop the England international.
Mangala could return from a hamstring injury, while Otamendi is almost certain to start on Saturday. The duo will have to have a perfect understanding to make sure Vardy does not spring the offside trap, while also tracking his movement in the penalty area, given his propensity to make clever diagonal runs in behind defenders to latch on to passes from midfield from the likes of Riyad Mahrez.
Blast from the past
The two sides faced off at Wembley in the 1969 FA Cup final in front of a 100,000-strong crowd, and it was Manchester City who edged the Foxes on the day, scoring the decisive goal in the 24th minute through Neil Young. However, it was Leicester City No 10 Allan Clarke who was awarded the Man of the Match award for his performance in the show-piece event.
Coincidentally, it was the last time City won England’s premier cup competition before the arrival of foreign riches, and it was 42 years since that win over Leicester that the Citizens won held aloft the FA Cup again. Here are the highlights from that 60’s meeting: