Leicester and Arsenal seek to pick up pieces
Following opening-day defeats, champions Leicester City and Arsenal, last season’s Premier League top two, will be desperate to get their campaigns in gear at the King Power Stadium on Saturday.
Three months on from their fairytale 5,000-1 title win, Leicester were stunned 2-1 by crisis club Hull City last weekend, while injury-depleted Arsenal were run ragged by Liverpool in a 4-3 home defeat.
With Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea winning their first games, it has left both teams playing catch-up already, but Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri refuses to panic.
“Our strength is the same. We have good spirit and work well on the training ground,” said the Italian.
“We won’t change our mentality. We are strong and we believe. We know we have to work hard.
“We have to do everything right then accept what is our destiny.”
Leicester’s opening result could scarcely have been more chastening, as they lost to a Hull team who are currently without a permanent manager and who were able to select only 13 fit senior players.
Riyad Mahrez briefly drew Leicester level with a penalty, but Jamie Vardy endured a torrid afternoon, notably producing an embarrassing air-shot at one point in the first half.
The days that have followed have yielded more positive news, however, with Mahrez following the lead of Vardy, captain Wes Morgan and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel by signing a new four-year contract.
Vardy, Leicester’s top scorer last term, rejected a move to Arsenal during the close season and the north London club were also reported to have made overtures to Mahrez, England’s reigning Player of the Season.
Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger said on Thursday that he had no choice but to “respect” Vardy’s decision, while he hailed Mahrez as “outstanding”.
Arsenal did the double over Leicester last season, inflicting two of their three league defeats with a 5-2 away win and a last-gasp 2-1 victory at the Emirates Stadium.
Wenger’s men were the only team to win at the King Power over the course of the campaign, but the Frenchman is aware that Leicester’s pace on the counter-attack makes them uniquely dangerous opponents.
– Koscielny ‘gamble’ –
“The challenge will be exactly the same,” said Wenger, whose side are unbeaten against Leicester in 21 encounters stretching back to November 1994.
“They have exactly the same qualities as they had last year and they are a team who are very quick on the break and defend well as a unit.
“The challenge for them is to do well again and to show that their last year was not a one-off.
“We have to address our defensive weaknesses from last week without compromising our style of play. We need to continue being very dangerous going forward and accept the way we play.”
Arsenal were missing several first-team players against Liverpool and Wenger’s starting XI remains difficult to predict.
With centre-backs Per Mertesacker and Gabriel absent, he has indicated he may “gamble” on the match fitness of Laurent Koscielny, after young pair Calum Chambers and Rob Holding had to fill in against Liverpool.
Koscielny has not played since Euro 2016 and both his France team-mate Olivier Giroud and Germany playmaker Mesut Ozil are in the same boat.
Aaron Ramsey, a semi-finalist with Wales at Euro 2016, did play against Liverpool, only to succumb to a hamstring injury that is expected to keep him out until after the forthcoming international break.
Nigerian forward Alex Iwobi, meanwhile, sustained a thigh injury.
Where Arsenal have several holes in their squad, Leicester are at full strength and will welcome back centre-back Robert Huth from suspension.
Huth sat out the trip to Hull, with Luis Hernandez, a close-season signing from Sporting Gijon, taking his place alongside Morgan.
Ranieri, though, has warned that his players are still some way short of full match fitness.
“Nobody is 100 percent,” he said. “They are 70 percent, not 100 percent.”