We’ve been privy to a heavyweight clash almost every weekend in the Premier League so far this season and the coming one is no different, albeit under rather unexpected circumstances.
Many tipped second-place Manchester United to be near the top of the table after 13 games, but few predicted they’d be kept out of pole position by Leicester City, who boast a whopping 28 points, the most wins and the least defeats of any Premier League side.
Indeed, despite the disparity of finance and resources between the two sides, Saturday’s 5.30pm kick-off at the King Power Stadium is essentially a title clash, even if the Midlands outfit are unlikely to still be involved in the race for the English crown come May-time.
Manchester United may boast a superior quality of player but with form, confidence and fate seemingly on their side, the Foxes will fancy another scalp against a team they beat 5-3 in unforgettable fashion last season.
With that in mind, this match could come down to who dominates the key battles. Here are FIVE Football Fancast believe will decide the outcome on Saturday.
It’s an old adage used frequently in sport but certainly rings true with Saturday’s clash at the King Power stadium.
Leicester City haven’t failed to score in a single Premier League game this season – in no small part due to the efforts of Jamie Vardy – whilst Manchester United boast the best goals conceded record (8) and the most clean sheets (8) throughout the division.
Paradoxically, however, both sides have earned such statuses in rather counter-intuitive ways. The assumption would be that Leicester are an offensive side and that United are a defensive one, but it’s actually the Red Devils who like to dictate the flow and tempo of the match through possession, whilst the Foxes create most of their chances on the break. They’ve actually scored the most counter-attacking goals of any Premier League side this season (3).
So Saturday’s game is shaping up to be a classic battle of the unstoppable force and the immovable object quite like no other. You get the feeling that could play more into Leicester’s hands. They’ve averaged the third-lowest possession of any Premier League side this season – just 45% – and will have no qualms about soaking up pressure to create room for Vardy on the counter.
The human embodiment of the aforementioned battle between the unstoppable force and the immovable object.
Jamie Vardy has been unquestionably the best striker in the Premier League this season, leading the scoring charts with 13 goals in 13 appearances, whilst Chris Smalling has been amongst its best defenders, featuring in every minute of Manchester United’s league campaign thus far.
Both are overtly physical players, the Leicester City frontman famed for his industrious power-running and the United centre-half’s awkwardly gangly frame reminiscent of a young Martin Keown, and this battle could well come down to who asserts their athletic attributes best.
That being said, Vardy’s finishing has improved immeasurably since the start of the season. If he can find a yard of space and a slither of goal against Smalling, the 28-year-old is likely to find the net – provided the pressure of the occasion, with Ruud van Nistelrooy’s goalscoring record in mind, doesn’t get the better of him.
Jamie Vardy may be grabbing all the headlines but the performances of Riyad Mahrez have been arguably more instrumental to Leicester City’s miraculous table-topping rise this season, finding seven goals and six assists in eleven starts whilst averaging the most dribbles per match (3.7) and the eighth most created chances per match (2.4) of any Premier League player.
The Algerian international has proved equally influential on both wings and as a No.10 this season but is most likely to feature in his most common role of right midfield this Saturday, which could spell huge trouble for the Red Devils.
To call United’s left-back situation a crisis would be a tad hyperbolic to say the least. But they’re without a specialist in the absence of Luke Shaw and Daley Blind, Marcos Rojo, Matteo Darmian and Ashley Young have all played at No.3 since his injury in September – which shows how unconvinced Louis van Gaal is by his current back-up options.
The likelihood is that either Blind or Rojo will be selected after starting against Watford and PSV respectively, with the other slotting in at centre-back instead amid the absence of Phil Jones.
But either way, the fact neither are left-backs by trade could cause massive problems upon facing the most potent winger in the Premier League.
Essentially a reverse of the aforementioned battle between Riyad Mahrez and Marcos Rojo or Daley Blind.
Juan Mata was dropped by Louis van Gaal in midweek, but it would be incredibly surprising if the Spain international wasn’t reinstated for the visit to the King Power stadium, having provided the most goals (4), most assists (3) and created the most chances per match (1.8) of any Manchester United player this season.
The 27-year-old has proved a useful entity on the right of midfield and will likely start there against the Foxes, which will see him go toe-to-toe with summer arrival Christian Fuchs.
Jeffrey Schlupp has missed just one Premier League fixture for Leicester so far this season but something tells me Claudio Ranieri will elect Fuchs’ experience over the 22-year-old’s youthful physicality on Saturday.
The 28-year-old has impressed when in the starting Xi this season, averaging 2.7 tackles, 3 interceptions and 1 created chance per match, and certainly won’t be overawed by the occasion. He’s claimed 72 caps for Austria and made 29 appearances in European competitions for ex-employers Schalke.
That experience could prove far more effective in stopping a winger who relies on guile and intelligence more than pace or power.
Wayne Rooney endured yet another tough 90 minutes against PSV in midweek, failing to create a single chance and producing just one effort at goal despite starting in his seemingly preferred No.10 role.
But in the absence of Ander Herrera, the Red Devils skipper seems set to continue in the attacking midfield berth for Saturday’s game, which puts him directly up against Leicester City’s shrewdest signing of the summer – defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante.
The unsung hero behind Leicester City’s impressive form, the Frenchman has averaged the most interceptions (4.2) and the fourth-most tackles (4) of any Premier League player this season, injecting a new element of steel in the Leicester engine room since his summer arrival from Caen.
Rooney’s struggled for room to breathe this season and could endure similar troubles against the 24-year-old, a particularly physical and feisty midfielder.
That being said, you can never rule out England’s all-time leading goalscorer and at some point Rooney will surely turn his wayward form around. With the reward of moving to the top of the Premier League table on the line, we could finally see some improvement from the United captain.