Leicester City-Hull City Preview
Though the hunters of England are truly now the hunted, manager Claudio Ranieri has stuck to his pragmatic ways as champions Leicester City begin defence of their title Saturday at KC Stadium against Hull City Tigers to kick off the 2016-17 Premier League season.
And that means the first benchmark Ranieri has set for the Foxes is again 40 points despite their incredibly amplified profile following their unlikely title run and upcoming European adventures in their first Champions League appearance.
"Forty points, forty points," Ranieri responded when asked about the team's goals following Leicester City's 2-1 loss to FA Cup winners Manchester United in the Community Shield match at Wembley Stadium last Sunday, using his fingers to make the "4" and the "0" for added emphasis as reporters chuckled.
"Don't laugh. I'm starting with the same philosophy and the same humility … what we achieved, it was fantastic. But now, forty points. Forty points is the target, and then we will see how many months less to the end of the season."
Leicester City were the story of European football last season, bucking 5,000-to-1 odds to win their first Premier League title in franchise history. The Foxes finished 10 points clear of runners-up Arsenal and became just the sixth team to lift the trophy in the Premier League era, and the first outsiders since Blackburn Rovers in 1995.
With the title came the spoils, including their first taste of high-calibre international play during the summer. Leicester City participated in the International Champions Cup and won one of their three matches - beating Celtic in a penalty shootout before defeats to European powers Paris-St. Germain and Barcelona by a combined 8-2 scoreline.
But success always comes with a price. In addition to re-working Jamie Vardy's contract for the second time in less than a year, Leicester City continue to sweat out transfer rumours regarding 2016 PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez and lost midfield engine N'Golo Kante, the apple of Antonio Conte's eye as the new Chelsea manager reshapes the 2015 champions.
The good news, though, is Kante is so far the only noticeable departure from this championship-winning side. And the Foxes went about their summer transfer business similar to seasons past - hoping shrewd under-the-radar moves will reap dividends similar to how Vardy, Mahrez and Kante became the fulcrum of this unlikely champion squad.
Nampalys Mendy was brought in from French side Nice with the hope he can provide some of the box-to-box coverage Mahrez did, and Rainieri - who signed a new four-year contract Wednesday - is quite familiar with the 24-year-old, having coached him during a brief spell at Monaco.
Leicester also added Nigeria international Ahmed Musa, who scored 15 goals in all competitions for CSKA Moscow last season and showed plenty of pace in his appearance off the bench in Sunday's 2-1 loss to FA Cup winners Manchester United at Wembley Stadium and scored twice in the loss to Barcelona. Still, Musa likely will start the season behind Shinji Okazaki on the striker depth chart but will have a chance to make his mark as the Foxes juggle domestic and continental commitments.
Vardy scored Leicester's goal at Wembley, showing no signs of resting on the laurels of his 24-goal season in 2015-16 and being one of the few bright spots in England's disastrous European Championship campaign this summer. While disappointed with the loss to United, newcomer Luis Hernandez thinks the team can use the defeat as incentive to start the season with three points.
"I think it is important that we have the hurt in the next game Saturday," said Hernandez, who came over on a free transfer from Spain's Sporting de Gijon, to LCFC TV. "I think it is important to start the season well after last season. I hope we can play well and get the win.
"I thought the team played a good game and we showed that again this season we can compete with the Premier League's big clubs."
No one, though, will confuse the Hull City Tigers with one of those big clubs, and they will be hard-pressed to become the first team in the Premier League era to open the season with a victory over the reigning champions and end a 23-match winless squad among those sides (0-4-19). Hull City are back in the top flight after fighting their way to promotion via playoff following their fourth-place finish in the Championship.
But there is plenty of drama surrounding the Tigers. Steve Bruce - the most successful manager in the club's history - shockingly resigned last month after the team failed to help itself in the summer transfer window as his relationship with vice-chairman Ehab Allam deteriorated beyond saving.
Mohamed Diame, who scored the goal that secured Hull's promotion, opted to leave for Championship side Newcastle United in belief the Magpies will win promotion while the Tigers get relegated for the second time in three seasons. That sentiment has been echoed by oddsmakers, who have made Hull the most likely candidate to finish in the bottom three.
The Allam family, who have few supporters among the fan base, is reportedly in negotiations to sell the team, but has yet to finalise any deal with a potential buyer. Caretaker manager Mike Phelan is trying to limit the distractions, but even he doesn't have a deal beyond Saturday's match against the reigning champs.
"We've done some homework on Leicester but they are what they are - they're the Champions of the Premier League," Phelan told the team's official website after Hull wrapped up their preseason with a 2-1 loss to Italian side Torino in Austria. "But we're going into this having earned the right to be in the Premier League and we shouldn't forget the work that was put in last season to get there."
Both teams came through their respective preseason schedules unscathed with respect to injuries and should field their first-choice starting XIs.
The teams last met in the Premier League during the 2014-15 season, when Leicester City took four of a possible six points. Mahrez accounted for the match-winner in a 1-0 victory at KC Stadium before the teams played to a scoreless draw in the return encounter.