Fulham vs Leicester City
Venue: Craven Cottage
Referee: David Coote
Coming away from two important wins for each side, Leicester find themselves facing up against their former manager, Claudio Ranieri, for the first time since their famous Premier League win – he will be facing a group of players that still retain key figures from that season.
Ranieri’s Fulham side will be hoping the significance of this reunion does not distract from the more immediate concern – a potentially must-win fixture in this busy December period. Ranieri’s tenure has garnished positive responses so far in both the win over Southampton and the defeat to Chelsea, where Fulham have shown more determination in their defensive duties while remaining a threat going forward. It would be wise not to get even remotely carried away however; Ranieri’s team are bottom of the table for a reason and they need points, not simply encouragement.
Sooner rather than later for his Fulham side, Ranieri will be hoping to see more of the defensive solidity that won his Leicester team the Premier League, where he helped the team garner an extraordinary habit of winning games 1-0 late in that fateful season.
He warned Fulham fans immediately that some of the methods implemented to stay up may not be pretty, and the dramatic and exciting 4-2 win against Southampton did not feel like part of the plan – it felt like a Slaviša Jokanović win, aggressive attacking football coupled with almost equally aggressive naive defending.
It would certainly be naive to believe that Fulham can stay up through wins such as that – a few 1-0 games would do a lot more to convince the fans and the pundits that Ranieri is making positive changes, especially since such a win would, extraordinarily, be their first clean sheet of the season.
Leicester have appeared to be at a permanent crossroads ever since the day Ranieri was sacked – a tough decision that took a certain gloss off that remarkable achievement, and since then Craig Shakespeare has been sacked while Claude Puel is consistently achieving mixed reviews at the helm for the Foxes now. Puel has continued the same counter-attacking style that Ranieri popularised there, with the James Maddison goal against Watford not only being a superb exhibition of individualist skill but also a great piece of team interplay as well.
When sitting 8th in the table, Claude Puel was sacked from Southampton after fan-base complaints over his playing style, with the context being that it was a particular poor mid-table Premier League season where Southampton could easily have finished 18th instead of 8th. Perhaps a similar thing is happening in his reign at Leicester – calls for him to receive the sack may seem premature but the Leicester fans do not seem convinced that he is the man to lead the team forward.
Results have remained generally good and the less favourable results, such as the pretty humbling drumming away at Bournemouth, were down to individual mistakes rather than obvious tactical issues, and the general spirit and the toughness of the side was on full display in the 1-1 draw away at Brighton, where Puel’s team battled back brilliantly to salvage a draw after an early red card.
It may be going under the radar but Leicester are doing quietly good work in the league this season, and may be exactly the wrong kind of side for Fulham and Ranieri to face.
Fulham will be hoping to welcome back the injured trio of Kevin McDonald, Andre Schürrle and Andre Anguissa from three different injuries, especially Schürrle who was clearly missed in the defeat against Chelsea. His selfishness in front of goal, particularly from range, can be extremely frustrating for his teammates and his fans, but his overall flair from the right side of the pitch, his excellent running and eye for a pass means that Fulham don’t have a player much like him.
Of future concern for unavailability is Aleksander Mitrovic – one more yellow card and he will pick up an automatic one-match suspension, and it has been well documented how reliant this Fulham team are on the Serbian striker.
It may be too soon for the Leicester duo of Harry Maguire and Rachid Ghezzal to return for this trip; both would have done light training the lead up to this game but there were suggestions before the Watford encounter that they would miss at least two matches each.
There is also a faint suggestion that Jamie Vardy, Leicester’s top scorer this season, may be carrying a groin injury, but Claude Puel kept his cards close to his chest as to whether the striker would be available for selection. Of course, there have been points this season where Puel has tactically omitted the Leicester hero, which has bought its fair share of ire from the player and the fans – the Vardy-less experiment often failed, so Fulham would be naturally more confident if indeed the striker couldn’t start at Craven Cottage.
Predicted Starting XIs
Fulham – (4-2-3-1): Rico; Le Marchand, Mawson, Odoi, Christie; Chambers, Seri; Sessegnon, Cairney, Schürrle; Mitrovic.
Leicester – (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Pereira, Morgan, Evans, Chilwell; Mendy, Ndidi; Albrighton, Maddison, Gray; Vardy.
Prediction: Fulham 1 Leicester 2
Although this looks like an extremely winnable game for Fulham (and subsequently must-win considering a daunting task to Old Trafford on the weekend), it would be easy to underestimate a Leicester side who are unlikely to let the Cottagers off lightly.
Although Ranieri has already shown signs of improvement in terms of the organisation of the defence, this same Fulham side were totally embarrassed by a quick, ruthless and counter-attacking minded Bournemouth side – a side not dissimilar from Leicester’s in game-plan and personnel. It could be a messy day for Fulham if the Foxes score early – the space for Maddison, Vardy and Gray to move into would expose the defence of the hosts, whether they have a new manager or not.