Leicester City are mid-table and not going anywhere, which is exactly why they fired Claude Puel.
Ahead of a non-challenging stretch of schedule in which the Midlands club must find a sense of identity for the future, the Foxes look to bin a disastrous weekend result on Tuesday’s quick turnaround when they host Brighton and Hove Albion.
POTENTIAL STARTING XIs
The Foxes (9-5-13) are 12th in the table and still a comfortable seven points above the drop, but it has been a trying term on and off the pitch. Leicester City are still moving forward from the tragic helicopter crash on the club grounds that claimed the life of owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in late October, and now the decision to sack Puel after Saturday’s embarrassing 4-1 home defeat to Crystal Palace adds new layers of intrigue and disappointment.
Puel never seemed like a good fit in the Midlands, with Leicester City still unable to re-capture the lightning in a bottle Claude Ranieri did in leading them to the Premier League title in 2015. The Foxes have fluctuated wildly in terms of results all season, posting back-to-back wins at Chelsea and at home over reigning champions Manchester City in December while also suffering an embarrassing FA Cup exit at the hands of League Two Newport County.
The Frenchman also had his share of run-ins with top striker Jamie Vardy throughout the season, arguably the last person the manager should have fallen on the wrong side of given the equity Vardy earned in both leading Leicester to the title and staying since when larger clubs came beckoning. Saturday’s loss, though, with three goals conceded in the final 20 minutes and supporters booing both the manager and side off the pitch, was the breaking point that ended Puel’s tenure.
“The Club would like to thank Claude for his efforts in leading the team during his 16 months in the role and wish him well in his future career,” the statement read on the club’s official website. “Assistant Manager Jacky Bonnevay also departs with the Club’s best wishes.
“First Team Coaches Mike Stowell and Adam Sadler, supported by the Club’s established backroom staff, will assume responsibility for the senior squad while the Club begins the process of appointing a new manager. The Board will make no further comment until this process is complete.”
As is the case with mid-season firings, the list of usual suspects of potential full-time replacements immediately included David Moyes, Sam Allardyce and Celtic’s Brendan Rodgers. The one-time Liverpool boss batted away talk about taking the job at this moment as he is seeking a third consecutive treble in Scotland with Celtic, but he is believed to be Leicester City’s target to take over come May.
There have been constant rumblings Rodgers wants back into the Premier League having rebuilt his image in making Celtic the dominant side of the SPL.
There is talent throughout Leicester’s roster, most notably through the spine. Kasper Schmeichel is still a world-class goalkeeper, and centre back Harry Maguire could be a fixture in the Midlands for the next decade as his England career blossoms. Midfielder and playmaker James Maddison also has a promising future at the senior level for the Three Lions, and though in the twilight of his career, Vardy remains full of bustle and industry as he relentlessly hunts out goals.
Calling Leicester’s schedule favourable over the next two months would be a kind understatement – the Foxes do not play a Big Six side until hosting Arsenal on April 29. The Foxes should be firmly entrenched mid-table by that point, which is why Puel’s sacking makes sense from a timing point of view to let the players help shape the direction of the club.
As Leicester City contemplate their future in mid-table purgatory, Brighton and Hove Albion (7-6-13) continue to try and scrape their way out of the relegation fight. The Seagulls were idle this weekend as their scheduled match against Chelsea was moved with the Pensioners playing in the Carabao Cup final on Sunday, and that match in hand could prove vital for Chris Hughton’s side.
Brighton are 16th in the table, three points clear of the drop, and of the six sides separated by six points from 13th through 18th, only Crystal Palace and Newcastle United have a superior goal difference. This will be Brighton’s first league match since a 3-1 loss to Burnley on Feb. 9 extended their winless streak to six matches (0-2-4) in the top flight, but they have shown much better form in reaching the FA Cup quarterfinals.
“Any game is a big game at this stage,” keeper and Australia international Mathew Ryan told The Argus. “We’ll give it our best and any game we go into I feel we are good enough to compete. It’s about how much we can sustain our levels throughout a performance to give ourselves the best chance of obtaining a result out of a match.
“That’s going to be the focus now. We’ve got to learn from our mistakes, move forward, bounce back and show a bit of character.”
Hughton’s club claimed a spot in the final eight opposite Championship side Milwall following a 2-1 home victory at Derby County on Feb. 16. Anthony Knockaert and Jurgen Locadia scored first-half goals, and the Seagulls survived a late marker by the Rams to make their first quarterfinal appearance since 1986 and move within one win of a trip to Wembley.
“You watch the FA Cup as a kid and dream about playing in a semi-final or final! We’ve probably got the best chance we’ll have for many years to come. It’s certainly the best chance so far in my career.
“It’s such a big game – one game away from an FA Cup semi-final. Both teams will fancy themselves – I’m sure we’ll take a good following to The Den and it should be a great game and atmosphere,” defender Lewis Dunk told Brighton’s official website. “I’ve only played there once – I was on the bench or suspended for the other three games. You can get a hostile reception from the fans, but you have to make sure you do the talking on the pitch.
“Everyone knows The Den isn’t the easiest of places to go to, but hopefully we can make it as comfortable as possible.”
The teams played to a 1-1 draw at the AMEX in November, with Vardy’s penalty on 79 minutes canceling out Glenn Murray’s goal in the first quarter-hour. That was Brighton’s lone point in three top-flight matches versus Leicester City since earning promotion last season, and their last win at King Power Stadium came in the Championship in 2014.
Well, that move by Leicester City was long overdue. Whether it results in a new manager bounce or a dead cat bounce for the Foxes is yet to be determined. The expectation, though, is Leicester will play on the front foot going forward, something they are capable of doing with their attacking options led by Vardy and Maddison as well as Ricardo Pereira at right back and Ben Chilwell on the left.
How caretaker managers Mike Stowell and Adam Sadler go about this in the next few weeks, or even the next few months should it take that long is not important. What is important is who the Foxes hire as their next manager. All things being equal with what the club wants, Allardyce is not that man. Though he would argue otherwise, the sense is the game has finally passed by “Big Sam” and his defence-first philosophy, though he could make Leicester’s back four go from good to potentially great.
Similarly, Moyes is not that guy as he has become another caretaker with an eye on maintaining the status quo. It essentially boils down to three options in the Midlands — Rodgers, Newcastle’s Rafa Benitez, or current Belgium national manager Roberto Martinez. Rodgers offers intrigue because it has been a poorly kept secret he wants a second crack at the Premier League, and while guiding Celtic to domestic treble upon domestic treble is impressive, it also smacks of being the tallest midget in the SPL.
Benitez is arguably a more charming version of Allardyce, a tactician who simply gets blood to drip out of stones in a creative manner. Though Vardy is beginning the twilight of his career if not there already, he would gleefully run himself into the ground for the Spaniard, and Maddison is also better than any playmaker Benitez currently has at Tyneside. He would also have ownership willing to spend money, which of course is the 800-pound gorilla that lingers around St James’ Park in the form of owner Mike Ashley or whoever takes over the team.
Martinez, though, is the wild card. One could argue he has nothing left to prove at the international after guiding Belgium to a third-place finish last year at the World Cup in Russia, and that it may be better to leave one tournament too soon with this golden generation versus potentially faltering in next year’s Euro. There is still a staggering amount of talent on the Red Devils — Eden Hazard, Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Thibaut Courtois are cornerstones any manager would commit felonies to build around — and reaching the semifinals for a second straight major tournament is not a major ask.
It will be a very important stretch run in the Midlands off the pitch as opposed to on it.
Though it is hard to call 27 points in as many matches overachieving, one gets the sense Chris Hughton is doing just that at Brighton as he tries to get the Gulls to safety for a third straight season in the top flight. No team should have to rely on as heavily on a 35-year-old striker for offence as much as Brighton does on Murray, yet somehow he keeps turning up and showing out.
Brighton are a straightforward team of blue-collar industry, but that has not proven enough in the past two months with six points in their last 11 league matches (1-3-7). They are in danger of falling deep into the relegation scrap, and will be scoreboard watching in hopes Burnley and Newcastle play to a draw in addition to trying to get a result here.
This is a game that could end in a 1-1 draw, but one gets the sense a cathartic victory for the Foxes is in the cards as they ring out Puel and ring in three points.
PREDICTED FINAL SCORE: Leicester City 2, Brighton and Hove Albion 1.
OTHER EPL MATCH DAY 28 PREVIEWS:
Newcastle United (7-7-13) vs. Burnley (8-6-13)
Chelsea (15-5-6) vs. Tottenham Hotspur (20-0-7)
Liverpool (20-6-1) vs. Watford (11-7-9)
Manchester City (21-2-4) vs. West Ham United (10-6-11)