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Can Leicester City Outfox Mourinho’s Manchester United?

Leicester City welcome Manchester United to the King Power Stadium for a Saturday evening showdown. While initially pencilled in as a Christmas Eve fixture, common sense has prevailed, as far as travelling fans are concerned, and it should be no less of a festive spectacle, as both teams will have a clear incentive to win, writes Maryam Naz.

The Foxes were in a rich vein of form before they suffered a double blow in the form of a 3-0 loss to Crystal Palace in the Premier League, followed by a painful League Cup exit to Manchester City on penalties. They will want to return to winning ways, and doing so will require the likes of Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy to lead from the front, both of whom missed failed to beat Claudio Bravo in that crucial penalty shootout.

On the other hand, despite having won 6 of their last 7 games prior to their own midweek League Cup fixture, Manchester United will still be ruminating over their shock 2-1 loss to Bristol City, and they will be keen to bounce back from what was a lacklustre performance. All evidence suggests that a heated and entertaining spectacle will unfold on Saturday evening. The neutrals will be pleased.

After last season’s post-Ranieri slump, Leicester are finally beginning to show exactly what they are capable of under their latest manager, Claude Puel, who has inspired performances reminiscent of their title-winning season.

Key to their recent victories has been the magician Mahrez. His resurgence has seen him score 5 goals this season, with 4 assists to his name, amidst a handful of exemplary performances. The Algerian has had his most creative month of games as a Leicester player, producing 10 potential match-winning chances in the space of 3 matches. He has been most productive when he has been given license to roam freely towards the centre of the action rather than out hugging the touchline. His sumptuous goal against Puel’s former employers Southampton paid dividends to this, as he took on defenders before curling a wonderful shot well out of Fraser Forster’s elongated reach.

If United aren’t careful, they could be on the receiving end of the Algerian’s spell. Nemanja Matic and co will need to be touch-tight in defending against him — if he is given the freedom to run at the United defence, he will doubtlessly cause havoc. His skill from dead-ball situations is also something to be marvelled at, whether he is taking a shot at goal or crossing to one of his team-mates. With a support team of Vardy, Demarai Gray and Shinji Okazaki, Mourinho’s men will need to show up more than they did on Wednesday night if they are to snatch all 3 points.

United will have Paul Pogba back as an early Christmas gift for their travelling fans. The midfielder has been sidelined after receiving a straight red card in the 3-1 win against Arsenal. His return will restore some attacking thrust to their midfield.

The Frenchman has been a key figure in this United squad — without him, their performances have simply been sub-par. What he brings to this team is ingenuity, almost mirroring Mahrez in that respect. His vast repertoire of skills means that defenders are uncertain on what he’ll do next. These shifts in play are often the catalyst for counterattacks, paired with his natural ability to pass well to other attacking players.

Whilst other players like Marcus Rashford or Anthony Martial may also have a few tricks up their sleeve, what separates Pogba from the rest is his sheer power and strength. For somebody so light on his feet, he is able to out-muscle his opponents and glide away with those long legs of his, which poses a conundrum for Claude Puel: his team may consider taking turns to foul Pogba, which is easier said than done. Perhaps the Leicester manager will take influence from his Bristol City counterpart, Lee Johnson. The Robins kept Pogba quiet via tight man-marking.

The reason it’s so important to focus on Manchester United’s record signing is that that United are simply a far better team with him in it. This season, they’ve won 87.5% of games played with Pogba and only 57.1% of games without him.

Despite the return of Pogba, United’s injury-list might create some complications for Mourinho. The Portuguese may be without a few of his defensive rocks: Eric Bailly is recovering from an ankle injury, whilst Antonio Valencia injured himself in the win against Bournemouth looks set to sit this one out.

Valencia has been performing consistently well all season, going largely unnoticed for his good defensive work; amidst all this talk of Mahrez and Pogba’s significance, now unfit to play, his absence that will make it a lot more difficult for United to suppress the Leicester attack.

His premature departure from last week’s game forced the return of Marcos Rojo, who had been out of the side recently due to a head injury, but was brought back into the fold in last week’s clash at the Vitality Stadium.

On the other hand, Puel will only be without Robert Huth, who had already been usurped by the impressive Harry Maguire. Both teams will also make changes to their squad after playing in midweek. Mourinho made 10 changes against Bristol City and should revert back to something like the side which beat West Brom for the trip to the King Power. He may have to reshuffle his attack to protect his players from injuries; Rashford, who played against both West Brom and Bristol City, might make way for Jesse Lingard or Juan Mata.

Both teams will still be difficult to beat; David De Gea may once again need his wrists of steel, whilst Kasper Schmeichel has already made his fair share of saves this season.

The encounter seems finely poised as both teams will be coming into this game on the back of defeats, proving that they do have defensive frailties that can be exploited, despite exhibiting brilliant counter-attacking abilities. The battle in midfield could be key: players like Vicente Iborra and Wilfred Ndidi will have to be wary of Pogba’s influence, and Nemanja Matic will have to marshal the space in front of his defence to stop the likes of Mahrez from conjuring any mischief.