Arsenal-Leicester City Preview
There may not be must-win matches in mid-August, but one can certainly make the argument there are not-lose matches.
For all the subplots surrounding Saturday's marquee match and home opener for reigning champions Leicester City against Arsenal at King Power Stadium, one fact is sure to have captured both teams' attention:
Only the 1992-93 Manchester United side have won the title in the Premier League era after starting the season with back-to-back losses, an unenviable position either side could face if the other emerges victorious.
For all the memorable moments Leicester City created in their stunning run to the top of the table, they had a forgettable one last weekend at KC Stadium. The Foxes became the first defending champion in the Premier League era to lose their season opener, falling 2-1 to a promoted Hull City side facing a spate of distractions and a lack of match-fit bodies - the Tigers didn't use any of their allotted substitutions.
Riyad Mahrez scored Leicester's lone goal, a penalty shortly after intermission, but Jamie Vardy failed to display the razor-sharp finishing skills that propelled the Foxes to the league title and a spot for him on England's roster for the Euros this summer. He missed three opportunities, and the Foxes also missed departed midfielder N'Golo Kante and suspended defender Robert Huth as they conceded goals on either side of halftime.
Newcomer Luis Hernandez, again expected to partner with Wes Morgan in central defence as Huth serves the last of his three-match ban, is expecting his team not to panic and show the same kind of resolve that made them title-winners in the spring.
"I think now after we lost our first game it's important to stay calm," Hernandez told LCFC TV. "I know it's not easy to lose the first game but we need to be calm because the league is about 38 games.
"It's a difficult game because Arsenal are a big team with really good players but we're at home with our supporters. We know that Arsenal's attacking players are really good with good technique. So it will be difficult for us but we need to play together like last season with high intensity and if we do that I think we can win."
Mahrez also finally ended the drama surrounding his possible exit before the transfer deadline, putting pen to paper on a new four-year contract Thursday. The Algeria international reportedly had many suitors, including Saturday's opponents, but the 2016 PFA Player of the Year opted to remain Vardy's running mate as the Foxes embark on their first Champions League adventure.
"I'm happy to continue my adventure with Leicester City," he said. "It's been a pleasure to be here the last two-and-a-half years, so I'm going to keep going here. I've achieved good things with this club.
"I'm excited to see what's going on in the Champions League with big clubs and big players - we will see. It's for everyone, not just for the players and not just for the club, but for the city and everyone that's behind Leicester City. It's the first time that we play in the Champions League, so it's fantastic."
While Champions League is old hat for Arsenal - they will be in group play in Europe's top club competition for the 19th straight year - some of their shortcomings that also are old hat have already surfaced to put heat on manager Arsene Wenger.
The Frenchman's inability to finalise a deal for Vardy after triggering the release clause in his contract rankled an already-agitated fan base. And those Gunners supporters were further unnerved with a 4-3 loss at home Sunday to Liverpool, prompting chants of "You don't know what you're doing" directed at Wenger as the lack of summer signings exacerbated an injury-hit squad also trying to rest players who appeared in the European Championships.
"Buying calms the fans down, but it's important to spend but even more important to spend the right way," Wenger said Thursday. "You do not sign players because you think it is important or not. It is about the availability of players … to find the players that will strengthen your squad is much more difficult."
One of those three summer signings, 20-year-old defender Rob Holding from relegated League One squad Bolton Wanders, was clearly out of his element along with central defender Calum Chambers during a torrid 18-minute stretch in which a one-goal lead became a three-goal deficit with a half-hour to play.
Holding's disastrous performance and the lack of bodies at the position may force Wenger's hand to bring back Laurent Koscielny back into the lineup as Arsenal are reportedly trying to pry either Shkodran Mustafi from Valencia or possibly Jose Gimenez from Atletico Madrid. Gimenez is believed to have a release clause of £56 million, and it may take a minimum transfer fee of £40 million to land the 21-year-old Uruguayan.
"We are working very hard," Wenger insisted. "You are absolutely convinced that I don't want to spend the money, but I would like to reassure you that we are ready to spend the money we have. As always, not the money we haven't got (because) it's not my money."
Koscielny had resumed practice only last week after helping Les Bleus reach the Euro final, and both Per Mertesacker and Gabriel will miss four months and six weeks, respectively, due to injuries.
German midfielder Mesut Ozil and French striker Olivier Giroud were also held out for rest, but Ozil could also be pressed into duty since Aaron Ramsey was forced from the loss to Liverpool with an injury just after the hour mark. Giroud, meanwhile, could be a more effective target forward who would let Alexis Sanchez play in his customary spot on the wing.
Arsenal handed Leicester City two of their three league losses last season, including a 5-2 victory in the 2015-16 corresponding fixture. It was a wild end-to-end affair in which Vardy scored a goal, hit a post and dented the crossbar in the first 20 minutes and Sanchez bagged three goals in a contest devoid of defence.
The Gunners then completed the double - and extended their league unbeaten streak over the Foxes to 19 matches (13-6-0) - with a 2-1 victory on Valentine's Day. Denny Welbeck scored in the 95th minute as Leicester were unable to scrape out a point despite playing almost all of the second half with 10 men after Danny Simpson was sent off with his second yellow card on 54 minutes.
Vardy converted from the spot in that contest, and Wenger is expecting another tough match from a Foxes team that now has a championship pedigree.
"They have exactly the same qualities they had last year and they are a team who are very quick on the break and defend well as a unit," he said. "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."