IT’S time for the Reds to return to Anfield, as they face Leicester City in the first home game of the season. We spoke to Rob Tanner, football writer for the Leicester Mercury, to preview the game and get the latest from our opponents.
From your memory, what are Leicester’s highlights against Liverpool?
Best moment is probably David Nugent’s volley, prior to Jeffrey Schlupp’s equaliser, in the 2-2 draw in 2014/15. I haven’t had a lot of opportunities to work at Anfield so it was great to witness that.
Also Jamie Vardy’s volley at the King Power Stadium last season, has to be right up there. I was sat behind it, because of where the press benches are at the ground. I remember seeing it dip over his shoulder and thinking “just hit it”, as you could see Simon Mignolet was off his line. That was a phenomenal strike.
Can you put into words the team’s achievements last season?
No. I have written a book, called 5000-1: The Leicester City Story, where I tried to make sense of it, but it’s very hard to do so. It was an impossible achievement. Something like that isn’t supposed to happen in the modern era. That a club like Leicester can from out of nowhere and win the title with minimal investment, compared to the other big clubs. They are backed by a billionaire from Thailand but, as you saw when they faced Manchester City, I think the squad was worth £23million compared to City’s squad which was worth over £250m.
It made no sense whatsoever in the scheme of English football, and how its developed over the years with the TV money coming in — where the richest clubs have been getting richer, while the poorer clubs were getting poorer. Although I think you’ve seen, with the money that’s coming in now, the wealth is being more evenly distributed. Owners are now going into middle sized clubs in the hope of developing them, as has happened with Leicester. Obviously I hope we can see more of it, but it’s more likely that we will see the established status quo from now on.
Given last season’s success, what is the feeling like among the fans?
They’re still euphoric. They’re looking forward to the Champions League, the first time the club has ever experienced it. They’ve just been to Wembley in the Community Shield, the first time they’ve been to the new Wembley. Only the second time in the Community Shield, having played Liverpool in it in the 70s, after Arsenal were forced to drop out.
I know it was a slow start, with the defeat at Hull, but the core of the team that won the title is still there so the fans remain confident of another big season.
It has been a mixed start for Leicester, how do you think it’s gone?
You saw against Arsenal, and then even more so against Swansea, the old Leicester returning. I think the celebrations and everything that took over with that astonishing title success went on and on throughout the summer.
Whereas, in past pre-seasons we’ve been going to the likes of Lincoln, Rotherham and Ilkeston Town, this season we were going to Los Angeles to face Paris Saint Germain, Stockholm to take on Barcelona and playing Manchester United at Wembley. It almost went on too long, understandably so given their achievements. When they started the season the players were tired, and looked burnt out already.
But now things are starting to settle down, they’re getting back into their routine and back to normal. The fact that the likes of Vardy and Riyad Mahrez have signed new contracts will bring a bit more stability and they’ll settle back down into the side we saw last season — not that I think they’ll win the title but they could still have a good season.
Looking at Liverpool, what do you make of Jürgen Klopp?
I really like him as a guy, and I think given time at Liverpool he is going to be a success there. I’ve noticed, when doing research for an article, that Brendan Rodgers had the best part of £300m to spend over three years, but with Jürgen spending just £5m in January we all thought he was going to really put his stamp on the squad this summer.
If you look at his spending, he’s pretty much broken even. I’m not sure if he was under pressure to keep a lid on the spending but I certainly thought he was going to make more of an impact, and that we were going to see more of a Jürgen Klopp team this summer.
It’s early days, so obviously I’m reserving judgement until I see how the summer signings settle, but I would like to see Liverpool challenging back up there and I would like Klopp to be the man in charge if they do.
And what are your thoughts on the current Liverpool side?
I think they’re still lacking a big star and a leader. In the past they’ve always had a leader, whether it be a Steven Gerrard or a Jamie Carragher, but you look around that dressing room now and think, when the chips are down, is there anybody that’s going to take the game by the scruff of the neck like Gerrard used to do — I don’t think there is.
There big weakness is at left back, and I think we’ll see Mahrez exploiting that on Saturday. I understand that Liverpool tried to get Ben Chilwell a few times but Leicester weren’t going to sell, but even that would have been a risk for Liverpool to go in for a teenage left back to solve that problem.
It will be interesting to see how they fair, though, and I think they’re a bit of an unknown quantity this season. I certainly don’t know what to expect from them ahead of the game.
Leicester lost N’Golo Kante this summer, but did tie down some other key players, what do you make of the club’s business?
I think this summer has been very successful. The predicted mass exodus, that a lot of the nationals were talking about, hasn’t happened — according to them Vardy was definitely going to Arsenal and Mahrez had agreed to this and that, but none of it was true. So it was really pleasing, for the Leicester fans, to see those guys commit their futures.
Kante was always going to be the one who was going to leave. When he came to it was probably with a little bit of reluctance as Marseille were in for him, and he preferred that option. But he came to Leicester and was a phenomenal success, as soon as the season was over we were expecting somebody to come in for him — and so they did. He had a release clause and Chelsea triggered it, Leicester were helpless at that point. He is impossible to replace.
But Leicester have broken their transfer record three times this summer; bringing in Nampalys Mendy, Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani — spending £30m on the latter, which is phenomenal when you consider their previous transfer record was £10m for Leonardo Ulloa.
On the whole, it’s been successful in terms of keeping hold of players. Hopefully the new lads will come in and be a success, because none of them have played in the Premier League before so there is always an element of risk in that. But the squad looks stronger, despite the massive loss of Kante.
Who will be the key men to watch out for on Saturday?
Sadio Mane is the man. He’s very direct, very pacey. Wes Morgan and Robert Huth aren’t the quickest guys in the world, though they are very experienced and they use that to get themselves out of trouble. But Mane will be Liverpool’s man to watch out for.
In terms of Leicester, the obvious choice is Vardy. He looks like he’s getting back to his best form. Danny Drinkwater has also started the season really well, perhaps being dropped from the final England squad for the Euros has galvanised him. His link up with Vardy, with that ball over the top, could be crucial. If Liverpool hold a high line, they could pay the price.
Where do you expect both teams to end up this season?
Roughly around a similar area, between sixth and eighth — they’re both strong enough to do that. The consequence of Leicester’s title success is that Manchester City, United and Chelsea have all had to reassess the way they go about structuring their squad. They’ve all brought in big name managers, with big reputations, and spent huge money on new players, which has fired them up, so it will be difficult to break into the top four. But I don’t see why Liverpool and Leicester can’t challenge in the top eight.
Finally, what is your score prediction?
I think it’s going to be a draw. In the games I’ve seen, there has been very little to choose between the two sides. It’s been moments of magic that usually settle those games; the game at Anfield last season was very close, with Christian Benteke nicking it late on. So we could see more of the same. I’m going for 1-1.
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