The Big Match

Football: Leicester hope to add Puel to Liverpool's flames

Claude Puel's (above) hopes may rest on the sort of defensive meltdown Liverpool suffered when they conceded three goals in five minutes at Arsenal.
Claude Puel's (above) hopes may rest on the sort of defensive meltdown Liverpool suffered when they conceded three goals in five minutes at Arsenal.PHOTO: REUTERS

Frenchman is unbeaten against Klopp's men and will aim to exploit their defensive frailty

Claude Puel makes for an unlikely nemesis but, while Liverpool brought technicolour excitement last season, they were rendered dullards by a man who projects an unremitting greyness.

Puel's former team Southampton faced Liverpool four times and kept four clean sheets.

As enthusiasm is on the up at Anfield again, with the forthcoming signing of Puel's former centre-back Virgil van Dijk for a world record of £75 million (S$135 million) for a defender, the Frenchman is back at a ground where he won a League Cup semi-final in January.

His task has got tougher and not merely because Leicester, after a fine start to his reign, have not won in four games.

Sadio Mane missed three of those four games against the Saints. Liverpool then added the electric Mohamed Salah. Now they have scored at least three goals in 11 of their last 14 matches.

Puel's hopes may rest on the sort of defensive meltdown Jurgen Klopp's side suffered when they conceded three goals in five minutes at Arsenal and which should be less likely when van Dijk becomes eligible. Or he may wonder if Liverpool's rotation will backfire, as it did when Everton held them.

No manager has made more changes to his starting XI this season than Klopp and he has a balancing act as he enters a run of three games against the top nine in the next six days.

He is without the injured Alberto Moreno and captain Jordan Henderson, who scored what proved the decider when Liverpool beat Craig Shakespeare's Leicester 3-2 in September.

Their replacements could have a significance. Leicester's game plan against the best has remained unchanged since their shock title win.

While Liverpool play on the front foot, dominate possession and commit men forward, Leicester operate on the counter-attack, looking to use Jamie Vardy's speed.

Demarai Gray has excelled and Puel found space behind Liverpool's full-backs last season, but it would be no shock to see the gifted winger benched in favour of more solid players like Shinji Okazaki and the in-form Marc Albrighton.

Leicester, scorers of eight goals in their last three away games, are well suited to operating on the break. But they face few teams who are masters of momentum quite like Liverpool. The Reds overwhelmed Swansea 5-0 on Tuesday.

But, prolific as they have proved against everyone else, Arsenal are the only top-seven team that the Reds have scored at least three goals against.

This is a test of Leicester's aspirations to be the best of the rest, but also an examination if Liverpool can navigate a way around a tight defensive unit organised by a manager who has prospered at Anfield with a blanket defence before.

If the Reds can defeat the former champions, it will increase van Dijk's chances of playing Champions League football next season.


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 30, 2017, with the headline 'Foxes hope to add puel to Reds' flames'. Print Edition | Subscribe