Wolverhampton-Leicester City Preview
Their Europa League adventures off to a glowing start, Wolverhampton look to show their Premier League finish last term was no fluke Sunday when they face fellow Midlands side Leicester City at King Power Stadium.
Wolves accrued 57 points in 2018-19, and their seventh-place finish was the best by a promoted side since Ipswich Town placed fifth in 2000-01. Manchester City's domestic treble - capped by their FA Cup final victory over Watford - entitled Wolverhampton to embark on its first European adventure since 1980, and they have taken full advantage.
Nuno Espirito Santo's side has put themselves in a good position to reach the final playoff round after a 4-0 rout of Armenian side Pyunik on the road Thursday. Diogo Jota set up three of the goals, including Raul Jimenez's brace immediately before and after intermission. Matt Doherty opened the scoring and Ruben Neves added a late penalty as the only goal Wolves have conceded in their three victories was an own goal by Ryan Bennett against Crusaders in the previous round.
"It's totally different, we approached it in a different way, with a lot of trips all over the world, but I'm pleased with the discipline and the hard work of the players," Nuno told the club's official website about the markedly different preparations compared to last year as merely a promoted side. "It's amazing how they work, they treat themselves and they respect themselves. But it's about protecting the team and building."
Jimenez has picked up where left off from last season as the Mexico international - who made his move from Benfica permanent on a £30 million transfer -- has four goals in three matches. Jota has assisted on three of them and has four helpers overall to go with a goal. Wolves also have more depth in attack this term, signing Patrick Cutrone from AC Milan for £20 million, and the 21-year-old made his debut Thursday with a late run out.
"He's integrating, but it takes time," Nuno said of Cutrone. "Every new player who comes to our team needs time. We have to keep on going with him. His adaptation into the squad has been great, he has been received well into the group and it's important that he continues to improve and get inside the dynamics of the team."
Leicester City are a credible threat to claiming a top-seven spot this term as they begin their first full season under Brendan Rodgers. The first order of business for the Foxes, however, is filling the enormous hole on the back line created by Harry Maguire's £80 million departure to Manchester United before Thursday's close of the transfer window.
The move happened so late it priced out the club from finding a top-line replacement, with replacements Nathan Ake of Bournemouth and James Tarkowski of Burnley reportedly among those under consideration to fill Maguire's spot.
The most likely central defence pairing Sunday will be veteran warhorses Wes Morgan and Jonny Evans, though the Foxes do sport depth at the position in Caglar Soyuncu and newly acquired Filip Benkovic, who played under Rodgers at his previous stop at Celtic.
While unable to keep Maguire, Leicester City did well to repel interest for 22-year-old playmaker James Maddison, who had seven goals and seven assists in his first season after arriving from Norwich City. The England international will have more help around him in attack with the summer signing of Ayoze Perez from Newcastle United, while Belgium international Youri Tielemans made his move from Monaco permanent for a club-record £40 million last month.
The trio will be looking to link up with talisman Jamie Vardy. The ever-industrious striker and former England international had 18 goals last term, and his 75 over the last four seasons trail will be joined by a promising attack that includes Newcastle United signing Ayoze Perez, only Tottenham's Harry Kane (101) and Manchester City's Sergio Aguero (86).
"Everyone talks about getting into the top six, for us, we want to knock as heavily as we can on that door and push," Rodgers told Leicestershire Live about the club's ambitions after spending £90 million in the summer window. "Everything shows you that it's getting more difficult - the last couple of years, that points gap has increased between sixth and the other teams.
"But in my time here at Leicester, we said we wanted to make European football, whether it's this year, next year or the year after, we shall see, but we want to go and push as hard as we can, do the best that we can. I'm so excited to see the team because they will get better and better as time goes on."
As the Foxes adjust to not having Maguire as a security blanket in their final third, wide backs Ben Chilwell and Ricardo Pereira will have to be more judicious about going forward to support the midfield. It also puts pressure on keeper Kasper Schmeichel, who had 10 clean sheets last season - an improvement on his total of eight from in both the 2016-17 and 2017-18 campaigns -- but still a far cry from the 15 he recorded in 2015-16 when Leicester shockingly won the Premier League.
The home team won both matches last season, with Leicester running out 2-0 victors on an own goal by Wolves defender Matt Doherty and a late first-half strike by Maddison. The Foxes, who have not conceded to Wolves in either of their top-flight home matches, played the final 24 minutes with 10 men after Vardy went studs-up with his challenge on Doherty.
Wolves, who won the return encounter 4-3 at Molineux in the most recent meeting, also lost to Leicester on penalties in the third round of the Carabao Cup after a scoreless 90 minutes.
Updated August 9, 2019