Champions' title defence hits a snag

Hull midfielder Robert Snodgrass (right) celebrating with Ahmed Elmohamady after giving their side a lead against Leicester they would hold on to.
Hull midfielder Robert Snodgrass (right) celebrating with Ahmed Elmohamady after giving their side a lead against Leicester they would hold on to.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Leicester fall to manager-less Hull, who expose Kante-shaped hole in Foxes' midfield

ENGLISH PREMIER LEAGUE

Hull City 2

Leicester City 1

LONDON • At one point, an apparently perplexed Mike Phelan scratched his head and, in another cameo, Jamie Vardy slapped himself hard across the face.

For Hull City's caretaker manager and Leicester City's star striker it must have felt as if the world had spun off its axis.

CAUSE FOR REFLECTION

We tried to do our best. Our commitment was amazing but it was individual, not as a team. We tried to win but sometimes it's impossible. We made some mistakes and we have to think where we made them.

CLAUDIO RANIERI, Leicester manager, on their opening-day loss to Hull.

Those moments seemed to sum up the match yesterday, when one of the most makeshift teams to have entered combat at this level defeated the English title-holders 2-1.

Thanks to a fine winner from the excellent Robert Snodgrass, Leicester became the first defending champions to lose their opening game of the season since the Premier League's inception.

With Vardy thoroughly off the pace and his defence frequently all over the place, Claudio Ranieri looked suitably agitated and must have wondered if the sheer chaos enveloping Hull had bred fatal complacency among his players.

Hull's behind-the-scenes staff had turned up yesterday morning to discover large swathes of the stadium scrawled with graffiti and a major clean-up operation ensued.

As kick-off approached, the home fans chanted "Allams out, we want Allams out" - in protest at the stewardship of the only Premier League club not to have signed a single senior player this summer.

With Assem Allam, the chairman, seriously ill, his son, Ehab, is handling day-to-day affairs and is involved in a desperate attempt to offload the club to Chinese investors.

There were unconfirmed reports that members of said consortium were in attendance.

Assuming that they did not swiftly sneak out given the din against the owners, the potential buyers would have seen that Hull started reasonably well. Phelan - caretaking in the wake of Steve Bruce's resignation last month - had only 13 fit senior players (including two goalkeepers) at his disposal.

Leicester, however, were sharper for the opening 30 minutes.

The visitors, though, were unable to capitalise on the chances they created, with Vardy a particular culprit, miskicking horribly after new signing Ahmed Musa had darted down the left to roll the ball back to him 15 metres from goal.

Hull rode the pressure and took the lead in the second minute of first-half stoppage time. Kasper Schmeichel clawed out Curtis Davies' near-post header from a Snodgrass corner, but Adama Diomande's overhead kick flew into the net.

Leicester responded immediately after half-time, winning a penalty within 20 seconds of the restart as Tom Huddlestone was judged to have clipped Demarai Gray inside the area. Television replays suggested the contact may have been outside the area, but Riyad Mahrez cooly sent Eldin Jakupovic the wrong way from the spot.

However, the spluttering champions were level for only 10 minutes.

Ahmed Elmohamady was quick to intercept a Schmeichel throw, racing down the right to send in a cross Danny Simpson half-cleared that Snodgrass drove home.

Ranieri reacted by throwing on Shinji Okazaki and Daniel Amartey, but got no closer to an equaliser.

By the time the match entered its closing stages, the Hull fans were singing 'Can't Help Falling In Love With You' and chanting 'We are top of the league'.

"It was great to see the team and staff all pull together and surprise so many people. The players enjoyed themselves," Phelan said.

Noticeably less vibrant without N'Golo Kante, the France midfielder who joined Chelsea in the close season, Leicester paid the price for poor finishing and defensive errors.

Ranieri refused to criticise individuals. "They (Hull) played better. We tried to do our best. Our commitment was amazing but it was individual, not as a team," he said.

"We tried to win but sometimes it's impossible.We made some mistakes and we have to think where we made them."

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 14, 2016, with the headline 'Champions' title defence hits a snag'. Print Edition | Subscribe