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Football

Leicester City hold most of it together but head into their title defence under many questions

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After the stunning events of last season, it is with great diffidence that one makes a prediction about Leicester City’s coming season. They are far shorter than the famous 5,000-1 odds they were to win the title before the start of last season but still shorter to be relegated (at 14-1) than to retain their title (33-1).

Any scepticism over the decision to replace Nigel Pearson with Claudio Ranieri last July, intensified with the exit of Esteban Cambiasso, instrumental in Leicester’s survival mission of the season before, was answered so emphatically with the first title in the club’s history. It still seems surreal that Leicester will be in this year’s Champions’ League group stage.

Ranieri is still at the helm, ready to lead his team’s title defence, but N’Golo Kante, central to last season’s success as Cambiasso’s replacement, will no longer be playing under him having joined Chelsea for £30 million. No player in the Premier League made more tackles or interceptions than Kante last term and the Frenchman’s imperious dynamism in the beating heart of midfield will be difficult to replace.

Steve Walsh, the man who persuaded Ranieri to sign Kante for a remarkably cheap £7.5 million from Le Havre, has left his position as assistant manager to take up a director of football post at Everton.

Another of Ranieri’s assistants Craig Shakespeare has been linked with a part-time role in Sam Allardyce’s England set-up and the absence of at least one of the voices that aided him last year, as well as one of the league’s best midfielders, will immediately place Ranieri at a disadvantage.

However with Kante as the only major departure, in a summer transfer window that saw Jamie Vardy’s release clause triggered by Arsenal and Riyadh Mahrez, last season’s PFA Player of the Year, linked with a move away on a daily basis, Ranieri has impressively managed to hold his squad together.

Chelsea Presents New Signing N'Golo Kante

 

The huge gap left behind by Kante will be filled by another relatively unknown French midfielder in Nampalys Mendy who arrives from Nice for £13 million and Ranieri knows all about the 24 year old having worked with him at Monaco. Mendy had the strength of character to be made Nice’s captain at the age of 22 and while his bulky frame and gigantic thighs will prevent him from being as tenacious as Kante, he is a gifted user of the ball; only PSG’s Thiago Motta completed more passes than Mendy in Ligue 1 last term.

Daniel Amartey, who joined for £5.5 million from FC Copenhagen in January, has been trialled in midfield in pre-season and has impressed with athleticism and range of simple passing. After the warm-up defeat to PSG, Ranieri rang off a list of replacements for Kante and Amartey, naturally a right-back, was high on his thinking.

The highly-rated Polish midfielder Bartosz Kapustka has also joined, hot on the heels of some strong performances at Euro 2016, and the feisty 19 year old, a quick, energetic playmaker who can operate in a variety of positions, having played on both flanks as well as centrally with KS Cracovia, will bolster Ranieri’s options in the middle of the park. Added numbers will be vital for the Italian who must now juggle European competition with domestic duties.

Despite the added number of games, a swelled squad could also create problems. Ranieri, for so long known as the ‘Tinkerman’, thrived in his alter ego last term, using only 23 players on the way to the title, fewer than any other team, and making a total of just 27 changes to his starting line-up over the course of the season. The midweek excursions will take their toll so changes will inevitably have to be made, but whether that will disrupt the immovable unity that drove them last season remains to be seen.

An innovative sports science and medical team played a huge part in the title win and the ice chambers and beetroot shots will be influential again this time around as Ranieri seeks to keep his strongest XI on the field as much as possible once again.

If he manages to maintain a settled squad, will the likes of Jeffrey Schlupp, excellent in the latter stages of last season, and Demerai Gray, already having announced his ambition to play more matches, be as happy with their squad roles? It is hard to imagine Gokhan Inler remaining satisfied with a repeat of just 5 league appearances.

Furthermore none of Leicester’s new signings arrive with Premier League experience and may require time to adapt; though that didn’t effect Shinji Okazaki, Christian Fuchs or Kante last term there will remain doubts.

Ron-Robert Zieler will play as back up to Kasper Schmiechel while Luis Hernandez, who joins on a free from Sporting Gijon, will act as cover to the defensive pairing of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, mainstays of a defence that shipped just 11 goals since Christmas last term, so it is not like they will be forced to adjust straight away. Ranieri has however tried to sign more English experience at the back, seeing a £10 million bid for Michael Keane knocked back by Burnley.

The confidence shown by Ahmed Musa as he sped away from Barcelona’s defence with a mazy dribble before firing home in a friendly on Wednesday night suggests he will have no problem settling in following his £16 million move from CSKA Moscow.

The Nigerian, bringing a dash of Champions League pedigree to the squad, scored twice in Stockholm and his clever control and intelligent link-up play, showing he is more than just a bundle of electric pace, indicate it will be money well spent.

The 23 year old’s main attributes lie with his jet-heels however and the prospect of a partnership with Vardy, especially on the counter attack, is a daunting one. Musa can also play on either flank, offering Ranieri an alternative to Mahrez or Marc Albrighton should he need it.

Summer enquiries for Troy Deeney and Saido Berahino hints that Ranieri wants to ease the scoring burden on Vardy and if another striker is not signed before the end of August he will expect Leonardo Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki to return more goals from their games of boundless running and peerless work-ethic.

He will also have to expect the same kind of consistently flawless performances from Danny Drinkwater, Jay Simpson, Fuchs, Morgan and Albrighton, who performed regularly above their expected levels last term. Will defences wise up to Vardy and close the spaces in which he bolts into? Will Mahrez, still attracting doubts over his ability to truly dictate matches, find the motivation or the room to be as devastating and pivotal this time around?

Leicester have taught many not to come up with the answers to those type of questions until they are given on the pitch, but based on the evidence of last season’s fairy-tale it’s going to be an entertaining ride to find out. They will meet Arsenal, Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Tottenham all before October is over, and by then we’ll have a clearer picture of where the next chapter of modern sport’s ultimate folk tale is taking us.

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