What Leicester’s friendlies tell us ahead of the Champions League
It can be dangerous to read too much into pre-season matches, but Leicester City’s high-profile games against PSG and Barcelona provide an invaluable opportunity to assess their readiness for the 2016/17 Champions League group stages.
Claudio Ranieri’s team conceded eight goals across their final two matches, losing 4-0 to PSG in California and 4-2 to Barcelona in Stockholm. In short, their International Champions Cup friendly results do not inspire confidence ahead of the coming campaign.
However, Ranieri had stressed beforehand that building fitness was of greater concern than the results and there were some encouraging signs despite the outcomes.
Here’s five things we learnt about Leicester’s Champions League expectations – they are 66/1 to win the competition this season.
1) Without N’Golo Kante, 4-4-2 may be untenable in Europe
Lionel Messi ran riot. Leicester’s Danny Drinkwater and Andy King struggled to successfully close him down or limit his impact in central attacking midfield, providing the most damning evidence yet that life without Kante will be extremely tough.
In time Nampalys Mendy, a £13 million signing from Nice, will prove to be a decent replacement in defensive midfield but he will need time to adapt. Mendy was made to look rather foolish on several occasions by Messi after being subbed on at half-time.
Ranieri’s preferred flat 4-4-2 shape requires two energetic central midfielders carrying out the work of a trio, and against the likes of PSG and Barcelona such boldness may be misplaced. Kante was a world-class talent. Without him, Leicester might not get away with fielding a second striker.
2) Leaky defence suggests reinforcements are needed
Leicester cannot afford to be as accommodating on the European stage as they have been in pre-season. Wes Morgan’s performances were arguably the most concerning element of the games against PSG and Barcelona.
He was directly at fault for two of the French champions’ goals, looking flat-footed as he failed to block the shot for the second goal and lunging out of position ahead of the fourth.
Morgan’s first half against Barcelona was similarly chaotic. His slow movement and poor positional play allowed the Catalans to cut through the defence with ease. It was a performance that suggested age is catching up with the Leicester captain, although these flaws may be ironed out after another fortnight of fitness building and better protection from midfield.
The 32-year-old has never been particularly fast, and this weakness in his game was brutally exposed. Ranieri needs to sign a centre-back before the end of the transfer window.
3) Ahmed Musa adds the experience and composure needed in the Champions League
Musa was signed for a club-record fee of £16 million in early July from CSKA Moscow. The Nigerian’s pace and strength make him well suited to Leicester’s quick-fire counter-attacking football, but more important is his Champions League experience.
Musa has featured in 20 Champions League matches over the past four years in Russia, playing against the likes of Wolfsburg, Bayern Munich and Roma.
He scored within minutes of coming off the bench against Barcelona and added a second goal 15 minutes later. The first was a phenomenal solo effort that exuded a fearlessness Leicester will need on this daunting new stage.
Musa is seemingly at ease playing against the world’s biggest clubs. For this reason alone he will be an important signing for Leicester.
4) Leicester’s counter-attacks look as menacing as ever
Despite some poor defending Leicester regularly threatened in both matches. They amassed 12 shots on goal (four on target) against PSG and eight shots on goal (four on target) against Barcelona.
The only thing missing was the finish – which is not surprising given that Jamie Vardy’s injury limited him to one rusty 45-minute cameo.
New signing Bartosz Kapustka, who made his debut against Barcelona as a 62nd-minute substitute, is a real coup for the club and should further enhance their counter-attacking capabilities.
5) New signings add strength in depth
The extra midweek games will be very tough for a Leicester side that rarely rotated their starting line-up last season.
The main reason for this was that Ranieri did not have enough quality among his reserves. This is no longer a problem, as proved by the Italian’s substitutions in California and Stockholm.
Leicester made seven substitutions against PSG and all of the players entering the field were of first-team quality. Against Barcelona, Ranieri made seven half-time changes (nine in total) and yet the Foxes were considerably improved in the second half. Expect a lot more tinkering in 2016/17.
All Odds and Markets are correct as of the date of publishing