After the hectic hustle-bustle of December and January, the Premier League now enters relatively more placid times of February and March. There are only three game weeks in February, the first of which beckons us over the next two days. While the marquee London derby between Arsenal and Chelsea will be the center of attraction on Saturday, on Sunday two of only three managers who have won the Premier League and are currently managing in the league, go head to head. It is a well-known fact that there is no love lost between Claudio Ranieri and Jose Mourinho, but Sunday’s fixture holds more for both of them than mere ranting and bragging rights.
For Claudio Ranieri, it is vital that Leicester arrest their latest slide of the campaign. The Foxes have not won in last four Premier League matches and have lost the last three. More worryingly, in the last six games, in which they have managed to win only one game, they have also managed to score only one goal – in the victory against West Ham. It is not a regular occurrence for the Champions to find themselves 16th in the league table with 15 matches to go, but that’s where Leicester find themselves, with just 2 points separating them from Crystal Palace in 18th. If Ranieri’s side do not turn themselves around quickly enough, they could find themselves again in a relegation battle, something they last saw in 2014-15.
In Jose Mourinho’s case, it is not as dire but with the kind of success he is accustomed to (despite last one season), and where his star-studded side find themselves, he might be able to relate to Ranieri. If he does not get his stars firing quickly, the Portuguese is staring at the prospect of losing the sight of top four, which must look like relegation to him. After a good run in December, Manchester United have drawn the last three games and have scored only two goals in these games. What must bother Mourinho, more than the results, is his side’s inability to score goals more frequently. A lineup with Zlatan, Pogba, Mkhitaryan, Mata, Rooney, and Martial does suggest a better goal-scoring record than what United have managed so far.
Leicester will be missing Daniel Amartey as he is still away with Ghana national team at AFCON and Islam Slimani is still nursing a groin injury sustained during the tournament. However, Leicester have Onyinye Ndidi available to replace Amartey. They also have Molla Wague, on loan from Granada, to help out if a defensive midfielder is required. To cover for Slimani’s absence, they have Ulloa, who was unable to secure a move away on the deadline day.
Manchester United have fewer injury concerns, with only Phil Jones not available after he came off against Hull. But to cover for him, Eric Bailly is back and should be starting. Other than these changes, United should be relatively unchanged from the side that drew against Hull.
- Manchester United’s record versus Leicester should make Mourinho more hopeful though. They have only lost two of their 21 Premier League meetings with Leicester City (W13 D6).
- In fact, Leicester have won only once in last 17 matches in all competitions versus United, but ominously that was last season in the same fixture.
- It is not all going bad for United. They are now unbeaten in 14 Premier League games – the longest current unbeaten run in the big five European leagues.
- This match will be Leicester’s 2000th in the top flight (currently P1999 W642 D526 L831, 32.1 win %). They will definitely try to make it a memorable one.
The Algerian has had quite an anticlimactic season this time around after his brilliant performances last season. He is almost representative of the slump that his club has seen this season after finishing at the top last season. So, for Leicester to turn around their season, Mahrez has to turn around his. Although Algeria crashed out of Africa Cup of Nations earlier than Mahrez would have wanted, he himself did grab a couple of goals against Zimbabwe. Ranieri would be hoping that they would have rekindled Mahrez’s goal scoring form in the league as well. In the absence of Slimani and last season’s Vardy, Mahrez is really the only other hope of goals that Ranieri has. Even if he gets half of what he got last season (17), it might mean that Leicester will stay in the league to fight again.
Manchester United do not have the problem of a misfiring striker like their opponents. But their star midfielder, who in the early matches combined very well with Zlatan has been quite inconsistent. Not just because of their market value but also because of their skills it is important for United that Zlatan and Pogba combine well. When they do, United are pretty dominant on the field, just as they were when Leicester visited the Old Trafford in the earlier part of the season. Of the duo, Zlatan has been doing very well but Pogba’s inconsistencies mean that United do not get the ball as quickly as they should, they lose it often and when they do keep it, the ball makes at times a ponderous approach to the front. If Pogba is playing well, these transitions are faster, resulting in more effective attacks. Of all his misfiring stars, Mourinho will be hoping the costliest gets back to form the quickest.
The King Power stadium has been a relatively happier hunting ground for Leicester this season, witnessing 5 wins and 3 draws. However, Leicester need an improvement in these numbers if they are to stay up, especially as their away form has completely deserted them. Given the stakes, Leicester will definitely put up a brave front but United are also facing an equal amount of pressure and so we should expect United also to be more aggressively chasing a win. I believe that the fact that the two teams are so close to what each of them would consider their own drop zones, will spur them on to deliver a more attacking performance, which could again result in a stalemate – a not too bad result for Leicester but quite undesirable for Mourinho’s men.