Early Signs of Progress at Leicester
Leicester City are a club with only one thing on their mind. And By Sven, it shows.
If ever an opening game displayed the differing expectations of two teams and its fans, Saturday’s season opener against local rivals Coventry City demonstrated this in stereo. There was flagrant excitement generated by their summer spending spree – and they didn’t mind who knew it.
Sure, anticipation of your team’s opening game of the campaign always leads to a decent turn out, whether the game is home or away. But with more than 6000 ultra-eager fans cramming into the away end at the Ricoh, along with a vast swelling of supporters dominating the hotel rooms and posh-boxes because the allocation couldn’t be increased – that was the first, albeit predictable, clue that the fans are expecting something big this year.
Compare that to the decidedly regular turnout of Sky Blue supporters – many of whom are refusing to entertain the notion of anything but a relegation fight this season (regardless of how damaging this unerring pessimism towards their team could ultimately be), and this only served to accentuate the excitement coming from the Foxes’ end.
So, can this team deliver what their fans clearly expect?
Captain Sven has been entrusted with the responsibility of guiding the Leicester ship towards the top-flight, and if his team selection on Saturday was anything to go by, he’s already figured out that he’s going to need a bit more than a randomly-picked group of old friends to help him out. He’s brought in plenty of new faces, but this is no Football Manager team sheet – players such as David Nugent, Matt Mills and most notably Richie Wellens already have a decent idea how to tackle this league and are going play an important role this year.
Each successful Championship team has them. For every Adel Taarabt, there’s a Shaun Derry. Or even your Paul Merson and Tim Sherwood, if you fancy going back a few years.
That talismanic quality is vital – the players who are quite clearly a class above the league make playing in it look effortless. But there will always be a place in promotion winning sides for the moaning gits. The players who will do anything it takes to win a game. Who will wind up opposition fans, fly into tackles, and will be on at the referee from the very first minute to last. In Wellens, Leicester seem to have that side of things sorted. For one reason or another, he was the most influential player on the pitch against Coventry. Having seen his side reduced to ten men thanks to a mistimed but far-from-malicious tackle from Darius Vassell, Wellens set about his task of ensuring that would not cost his team. Pressing Coventry, forcing mistakes and, most notably, making sure the referee was aware whenever there was a hint of a decision to go Leicester’s way.
The tide was against the ten men for much of the first half. They spent long periods chasing the ball as Coventry probed patiently, spreading the play and awaited their opening. The Leicester unit held firm however, and it was just before half-time that the match turned, with Wellens given the opportunity to tip the balance back in his team’s favour.
Receiving the ball in a troublesome position, he was able to protect possession and eventually draw a wild challenge by sky blue plonker-in-residence Carl Baker. This was his moment to force the referee’s hand, and he made sure everyone knew how wild that challenge was, regardless of how much pain or genuine impact there actually was.
As always, there’s rarely a right or wrong in these red card incidences– only a different perspective. Your side of the fence will have a huge influence over your view of this. Leicester fans will look at the tackle and say that it deserved to be punished as harshly as they were. Coventry fans will say that whilst wild, the impact was not as dangerous as Vassell’s, and more importantly, Wellens was a cheating swine for the arched-back anguish he showed as Baker flew in. At least, this was the gist of what I heard during my half-time toilet break.
In reality, Wellens did what he had to, and he (and many others) will do it again throughout the season to ensure their team gets to where they want to be. He will make sure the referee is aware of his presence and in turn, annoy everyone in the stadium by doing so. He’s more than just a nuisance though – he’s also one of the better midfielders in the league.
So we can already pin down an annoying, yet very-effective sod to help them on their way. What of Leicester’s own Taraabt? Where is the Premiership quality in their midst – the player to tease his opponents with his mastery?
Could it be new man Neil Danns? He certainly had some impressive performances for Crystal Palace last season. Enough to catch the eye of a former-England manager too, which should count for something.
Yes, he’s classy, but he alone won’t be able to make the difference. He too seems far too concerned with giving officials grief throughout matches. He’ll pass sensibly and swiftly, and no doubt serve his purpose as another Wellens character to force proceedings in LCFC’s favour, as required.
He’s no Taraabt, Merson or Ali Bernabia – he’s a different player to that – but the Championship shouldn’t cause him too many issues. A comfortable flow to his play, he was able to make the pressured situations seem simple, whilst injecting a Barcelona-style (note, I said ‘style’) pace of passing and movement to leave the Coventry midfield trailing on plenty of occasions.
In the same way that many of this year’s pre-season predictions are based on little more than cliché and conjecture, there’s obviously a hint of caution claiming that Fernandes is going to have the same impact as the aforementioned second-level superstars. This was one game, and as we should all know by now – anyone in football can have a good game. Michael Doyle, Robert Green; even Roy Essandoh was able to turn it on when it mattered (once).
Not many in the Championship will have 10 good games in row though – that’s where the difference lies. If come October we return to Leicester and Fernandes is still shining – we should be able to say with more confidence just how key he will be for them.
As for the rest of the jigsaw, the piece that failed to click in any real way was the man charged with firing City to promotion; England hundred-percenter David Nugent. He fulfilled the obligatory whinge-for-all-that’s-it’s-worth criteria admirably, but put in a generally quiet performance compared to his dominant midfield teammates. Of course there were mitigating circumstances – his strike partner Vassell was in the shower after just 11 minutes. But forgetting that, his touch was still a little off, and he found himself on the floor ever such a lot.
Mind you, the same could be said about Cardiff’s Kenny Miller against West Ham on Sunday afternoon, but an off-game wasn’t enough to prevent him from grabbing the winner, as covered in this week’s Monday Profile. With Nugent – as he showed on his solitary appearance for England – he can still find the net regardless. Combine him with a confident (and present) Darius Vassell and the former internationals should have enough about them to smash many of the teams in this league into next week.
Given the intrigue that’s building about the Leicester revolution, it was a shame that the sending off meant we didn’t get an opportunity to see much of this strike partnership in full flow, meaning we will now have to wait a few more weeks before having another proper viewing. It also means we’ll need to give it a little longer to make any firm judgements on the credibility of Leicester’s ‘favourites’ tag, even if there is a decidedly Premiership-expectation already resonating from the stands.
The Ricoh has been open for six years, and has played host to number of high-intensity and high-stake promotion games (for the opposition, of course). However, the celebrations that followed Lee Peltier’s 52nd minute winner were of such scale and ferocity you’d be forgiven for eyeing your calendar to check that this wasn’t 9 months later.
Unfortunately, it was just a goal to snatch an opening day win against a reasonably solid Coventry side. Any winning start is great for momentum – but as opening day performances from promotion candidates go, they’d probably do well to take the ‘winning ugly’ positives from this one and move swiftly on. There’s surely better to come.