Following a comfortable victory over Scottish champions, Celtic FC, in their International Champions Cup preseason opener at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday, FC Barcelona will be looking to make it two wins from two tomorrow as they take on Leicester City in Stockholm. The Foxes seemed to captivate the entire footballing world last season with their shock title win, apparently proving that "miracles can happen", even in the modern game.
Their success, we are told, came against all the odds – a real David vs Goliath story as they stood up to the likes of Manchester United, Chelsea and Manchester City, emerging victorious in the process. Some have even gone as far as to claim that it’s the greatest footballing achievement in recent memory – after all, nothing catches the eye quite like sensationalism.
Of course, Leicester City were a very good team last season, and what they achieved was in many ways unprecedented in the Premier League era. Since 1992, very few teams have ever lifted the trophy and for Leicester to add themselves to that list, no-one can deny that this was an incredible accomplishment.
That being said, there was an element perhaps not of fortune and luck, but certainly of opportunism about their success. Their title win came in what could easily be deemed the weakest Premier League of the millennium; Manchester City were out of sorts, Chelsea were in crisis and Arsenal were, well, Arsenal were Arsenal.
Buoyed by a light schedule, Ranieri’s side almost became the best side by default in the sense that it wasn’t solely down to improvement on their part; largely it was actually down to considerable regression from the usual contenders.
It was down to English football’s descent into irrelevance.
Consider that while Leicester were far and away the best and most consistent team in last season’s Premier League, would any football fan now deem them to rank amongst Europe’s elite? Did their title win elevate them to the same level as the other major domestic champions, like Juventus, Paris Saint Germain, Bayern Munich or Barcelona for instance? Certainly not. Would it even place them in a theoretical top ten? Again, there are doubts.
This title win doesn’t appear as though it will serve as a building block to something greater. In spite of being gifted with the significant revenues that comes with being a Premier League club, Leicester have struggled to retain key players, and whether by design or otherwise, they have also struggled to recruit, thereby failing to address the concerns regarding their squad depth.
As the Blaugrana well know, expectations skyrocket after a title win. For Leicester, the expectation is that they deliver on multiple fronts after such a targeted campaign last season and while it is true that preseason results are generally a poor indicator, the signs from the Foxes preseason thus far are far from promising.
I opined that Celtic are a bad football team last week, and the manner in which we brushed them aside both without moving out of second gear, and at a far earlier stage in our comparative preseason preparations validated that suggestion. Yet, in their match against Celtic, Leicester struggled and could only draw.
Next up, they faced their first "real test" as Premier League champions against Paris Saint Germain and they were embarrassed. The same central defensive pairing that inspired the team to the Premier League title were routinely beaten, the midfield that provided such ample cover last season was largely anonymous and Riyad Mahrez aside, the entire team were simply outclassed. By the end of the evening, PSG had run away 4-0 victors and more than anything; it was the manner of the victory that will have left Ranieri feeling dejected.
Preseason by definition may not be competitive, but that’s no excuse for why his players couldn’t turn that fixture into a contest.
And so, we come full circle to focus back on the match ahead; La Liga champions against Premier League champions. The best that Spain has to offer; against the best that England has to offer. For Leicester, it’s a chance at redemption – a chance to prove they belong. For Barcelona? It’s just another game closer to the start of the season.
For Luis Enrique, tomorrow’s match represents another opportunity to test his squad and experiment with new ideas. On Saturday, we witnessed Juan Camara feature at left-back to good effect, and to the surprise of many, we saw Sergi Roberto once again thrive at pivote. We saw Denis Suarez in midfield and in attack; we saw Arda Turan given more freedom and we saw Munir just about everywhere at one stage or another.
We also saw that the future remains bright; for all the hyperbolic statements about the demise of La Masia, Carles Aleña, Sergi Samper and a whole host of B team players proved otherwise. It’s naive to read too much into a preseason friendly, but to be honest, this is just a continuation of last season – we’re still good at football, and usually much better than our opposition.
There were of course signs that some players were yet to get into their usual groove. Lionel Messi wasn’t weighting his passes quite as perfectly as he usually would, while Luis Suarez was largely anonymous – but it was a step in the right direction for everyone. Another game under our belts, bringing us one step closer to being ready for the real thing starting in a few weeks.
Expect a similar approach from Luis Enrique tomorrow; he has a squad of 21 players at his disposal and we should expect to see them all. That will mean preseason debuts for Sergio Busquets and Javier Mascherano, and more time for the likes of Aleña and Samper; again starting line-ups are all but irrelevant but we can keep an eye on the key subplots emerging from this preseason.
Firstly, can Aleix Vidal continue to shine at right-back? Against Celtic, the ex-Sevilla star was simply sensational at both ends of the pitch, playing a pivotal role in Arda Turan’s opener and making countless interventions at the back, including a number of well-timed recovery slide challenges. It’s apt that he looks a little thinner on top than I remember, because this was a mature performance from Vidal as he looks to stake his claim for Dani Alves’ vacated starting spot. Another strong performance could see him enhance his chances.
Separately, what about Sergi Roberto? Luis Enrique’s utility man looked excellent in every position on Saturday, but he didn’t feature at all in the one position we were sure was his: right-back. Will Lucho debut Roberto at full-back tomorrow, or does he continue to see Sergi as a solution for a variety of positions?
Then we have Messi and Suarez; they are operating without the third musketeer at the moment, but one would expect them to still be amongst the goals. Leicester may be Premier League champions, but as we know these two are rarely discriminatory about who they score against – could they get off the mark tomorrow with a couple of goals of their own, or will it be the supporting cast who once again provide the killer touch in front of goal?
Jamie Vardy continues to miss out for Leicester, presumably still recovering from all the effort that was expended in England’s memorable Euro 2016 campaign, but leaving their top-scorer aside, Leicester are all but at full strength. Riyad Mahrez continues to feature despite speculation linking him with a move away, while new big money signings Nampalys Mendy and Ahmed Musa are likely to play some part, starting and off the bench respectively.
I called the Celtic scoreline down to a tee; I’m going big and upping the ante to 3-0 this time.