We all know the situation with Leicester City 12 months ago: Vardy was public enemy number 1, Ranieri was a clueless tinker man, Mahrez was an elegant player who’d played above himself for the last couple of months of the previous season – oh, and they’d brought an unknown Frenchman to replace their biggest name, who could apparently run a lot.
How everything can change in the space of a calendar year. Leicester went and took on all before them, setting the trend right from day 1 with a 4-2 victory over Sunderland, and you guessed it, both Vardy and Mahrez on the scoresheet; although Kanté was yet to establish himself as the Premier League’s version of Mo Farah. Three defeats then during the whole season, once against Liverpool and twice against Arsenal, and The Foxes achieved the impossible, and were crowned Premier League Champions.
It was always inevitable from there, that the aforementioned trio would receive admiring glances from the crème de la crème of European Football.
First came along Arsene Wenger, deciding the direct running style of Jamie Vardy would herald the arrival of the Plan B the Emirates Stadium occasionally murmurs about – Vardy though stayed put, and for the time being it was advantage Leicester in any transfer discussions between these two clubs.
Who would want to leave a team about to embark on their first Champions League campaign anyway….
The Premier League last year had a new hero in Blue – a little Frenchman who played with a smile on his face and never stopped running; Ranieri famously claimed he could head in his own cross. The obvious comparison was Claude Makélélé, not a name used lightly. Sadly though for Leicester, whilst Kanté will continue to run around in a blue shirt, it will be in a team based in South West London, with no Champions League Football – Chelsea. The Champions will severely miss their linchpin in the midfield, as he allowed them to play with the pace they did due to his ability to move around the pitch more so then other; his stats of 1 goal and 5 assists will not be missed, but he was unmatched in terms of energy and enthusiasm last year, and Conte knows he has a gem in his Chelsea side, who at 25 will only get better.
The player who caught the imagination perhaps more so then any other was the Algerian, Riyad Mahrez – we saw glimpses of what he was capable of towards the end of the previous campaign, but no one could’ve been ready for the explosion onto the world scene that was about to occur, with 17 goals and 11 assists being pivotal to their success. This of course brings speculation, and if press is to be believed he has his pick of the world’s most glamorous clubs and pay cheque to choose between, whether it be Barcelona or PSG, Manchester United or Chelsea. Arsenal are seemingly the closes though with a £45m bid being placed last week – negotiations seem to have reached an impasse though, and much to the legions of Arsenal fans on social media’s annoyance, he may in fact choose to stay another year, and potentially cement himself as a great of the King Power Stadium – something every youth player from Algeria dreams of?
Other then Kante then, I would not be surprised if Leicester are pretty much as they were last year, plus a couple of additions. In Mendy, Ranieri is looking to replace Kante with a player he knows from his time at Monaco, and whilst he is not yet a household name, the same could’ve been said for his predecessor. He plays in a similar position and also brings leadership experience despite his young age, captaining Nice on numerous occasions. More exciting perhaps is the signing of young Polish international Kapustka on the back of some scintillating performances with Poland in the Euro’s. Whilst my viewing of him is limited to this one tournament, he certainly looked a player who could thrive in the Premier League environment, though at 19 he will need time. Musa has got many people talking over the pre-season, with two fantastic goals against Spanish Champions Barcelona. Word of warning though: how many times have we seen a speed merchant look great, only to struggle with the physicality of the Premier League? The big question will be whether Musa carries the ‘bite’ of teammate Jamie Vardy for example.
The spine also remains, with Schmeichel and Wes Morgan ensuring they will be tough to beat. I am excited about watching more of Gray as well, a pacy English winger they signed from Birmingham who has won many admirers for his performances in England age group teams.
The big problem could be the Champions League: whilst the Leicester faithful and players a like will relish a chance to play the likes of Barcelona and Juventus, expectations will have to be managed. Very few players in this squad have experience of mid-week matches, and we have seen bigger names struggle with the challenge. That is not to say they will not excite, and I’m sure many would not accept a run to the knock out stages whilst finishing safely in the top half of the table, before continuing to build.
Pre-season though will have brought about a harsh realisation for Ranieri and his troops though, with heavy defeats against PSG, as well as the aforementioned Barcelona – saying that, surely many Leicester fans would take a 4-2 loss in the Camp Nou just for sheer excitement levels. Their owners I can tell you from personal experience are extremely passionate about the club, but know sport inside out as well, and will be aware of the challenges facing their side this year.
In Ranieri, there is a manager who does have experience at the top. Expect the soundbite to be something along the lines of ‘first we need to get to 40 points’. Sound familiar?