My first Premier League match in the King Power Stadium turned out to be the last Premier League fixture at home for Leicester City with Claudio Ranieri as the manager.
That fixture pitted the reigning Premier League champions against the reawakened giant of Manchester United, led by Jose Mourinho. That the TV execs scheduled them to play on Super Bowl Sunday felt appropriate for the stature of both teams. But game fell flat inside the first half as United tamed the Foxes in what became a leisurely stroll to a 3-0 win over the champs.
In light of Ranieri’s sacking on Thursday, there’s a layer of irony to United being the last Premier League opponent he’d face at home. Ranieri’s last job in England, as manager of Chelsea from 2000 to 2004, ended when Roman Abramovich sacked him and hired Mourinho as his successor. Thursday’s news also allowed Ranieri to join Mourinho as the second member in the exclusive club of managers who have won the Premier League and then got sacked in the following season.
But the thought of the Leicester hierarchy sacking Ranieri was far from my mind (and probably many others’ at the King Power Stadium) in the pregame build-up. My mind zipped all over the place as soon as I arrived in Filbert Way; the Premier League at the summit of the English pyramid is overwhelming compared to the Premier League I experience at humble Selhurst Park.
The King Power Stadium is a massive modern arena with every inch of the exterior and inside the concourse covered in blue and white. The size of the stadium is accentuated by having a power station, a few car dealerships, and short brick buildings as neighbors. Banners and signs scattered throughout the ground mark Leicester’s title-winning 2015-16 season, including a navy wall scroll of a championship banner taking up most of a wall in the stadium. The individual program(me) sellers outside the turnstiles have their own blue kiosks—each kiosk looks like a short and plump TARDIS—that protect the employees from the elements. Even the program(mes) come sealed in a plastic bag to protect your £3.50 investment.
Inside the vast bowl of the King Power, the club ratcheted up the noise ahead of kickoff with the Andrea Bocelli performance of Nessun Dorma from when Leicester lifted the Premier League trophy. When the recording of Bocelli ended, the supporters carried the load with the help of those infamous clappers.
Those clappers are annoying.
The clappers, which are basically paper fans, do too good of a job in generating noise. My ears started to hurt from the increased volume that came when the supposed used the clappers to applaud the player introductions. But from an outside observer’s perspective, those clappers are the perfect tool against opposition: they’re loud, the Leicester supporters love them, and they get under the skin of the traveling support.
Thank God for the kickoff whistle, which ended the continuous stream of clapper-supported applause.
The managers emerged mere moments before the whistle blew. Ranieri and Mourinho both looked like they dressed for a funeral with their long black coats and dark dress slacks, grim contrasts to the vibrant red and blue that would be running all over the pristine green pitch.
Both men expressed their personalities in their in-game management; neither spent long periods on the bench all match, instead opting to stand and watch everything from the touchline. Mourinho took on the subdued version of his hyperfocused self, jotting down observations in a notepad, walking around in a circle during breaks in the action, and using gentle gestures to his players to get them to reorganize their shape. He only became animated when he chirped at the referees for missing a call.
On the other hand, Ranieri was more active in the box. After applauding the home supporters for signing his name at the beginning of the match, Ranieri often provided instructions to his players while the ball was in play. His fingers pointed at players and spots for positioning; his arms moved back and forth to encourage aggression; his voice reached his players despite the noise in the stadium. In the moments when Ranieri just watched the action, he stood still and had his hands behind his back, like a professor proctoring his students in an exam.
Leicester almost had the breakthrough in the 18th minute, when United cleared a header off the line. The attack encouraged the home support, who then began chanting
“Your city is blue
Your city is blue
Just like Leicester,
Your city is blue.”
United grew into the game from that point on, with Marcus Rashford hitting a half volley high in the 22nd minute and Leicester keeper Kasper Schmeichel saving a low drive from 10 yards out in the 34th minute. Schmeichel was as expressive as Ranieri in the match, applauding Leicester attacks that sputtered out and raising his fists up to pump up his defensive corps after a good stop.
Seven minutes later, Leicester could no longer contain the pressure from United.
Henrikh Mkhitaryan took the ball, burst past an out-of-position Robert Huth at the center circle, and started a race with Wes Morgan in a sprint to the box. A moment before Morgan slid to try and block Mkhitaryan’s shooting lane, the Armenian midfielder took aim at Schmeichel, and the ball bounced off the keeper and into the net. As United celebrated, Schmeichel reacted in disgust to the unlucky deflection he caused.
Two minutes later, United doubled their lead after Leicester’s back four collapsed again.
Antonio Valencia took the ball into the right edge of the box without any challenge from his marker, Christian Fuchs. Valencia used the space between him and Fuchs to send a low, driven pass into the center of the box. The ball rolled just out of the reach of Huth and Morgan, even though the pair were ball-watching. Because Leicester’s heart of defense was tracking the ball, neither one of them bothered to track any United players in the area.
Among the United players lurking around: one Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Even though Ibrahimovic was the most imposing figure in the United starting XI, Morgan left the Swede unmarked from 12 yards out. That gave the Swede just enough space to meet the ball behind the penalty spot and one-time it into the net.
This time, Schmeichel laid into his defenders for neglecting to mark the most dangerous goalscorer on United. Rightfully calling out his teammates wasn’t enough to soothe Schmeichel, so he continued his shouting and redirected it toward the blue sky above.
Halftime came with United up 2-0 and their supporters signing “Going Down” to the Foxes faithful. That’s rich coming from supporters of a club with the financial muscle and international recognition to make that awful season outcome an impossibility for them.
As bad as Leicester’s defense was in the first half, their attack let them down just as much. Too many cheap giveaways and a lack of inventiveness limited the number of opportunities they had; the strikers were not clincical enough in the few real scoring chances they had. Ranieri did indeed have a couple ideas in the dressing room to retool the toothless attack: Demari Gray replaced Shinji Okazaki and Andy King came on for Ahmed Musa before the second half kickoff.
Juan Mata extinguished any hope of a comeback for the Foxes within three minutes of that kickoff.
Once again, United ran down their right to exploit the struggling Fuchs. Mata took the ball to the same spot along the right edge of the box before passing it to Mkhitaryan in the box. Fuchs, watching the ball while trying to put Mata offside—a teammate marking Ibrahimovic kept Mata onside—let the Spanish midfielder get behind him as Mkhitaryan passed the ball into open space on the right. Mata met the ball at the six-yard box and knocked it past the helpless Schmeichel.
At this low moment in the match, Leicester’s supporters rallied for one last surge of positive energy to try to lift up their players. The words “LEICESTER! LEICESTER! LEICESTER!” roared through the King Power. Schmeichel raised and shook both his fists toward his teammates to get them to fight.
By the 53rd minute, United already began to play to kill the clock with possession. Yet, Leicester finally found some attacking rhythm. In the 56th minute, Leicester had their first real chance of the game since that cleared header, when a Rihyad Mahrez free kick struck the side netting. Gray took charge of the next attack, running down the left before cutting the ball back outside the box to Danny Drinkwater, who could only shoot it high. Gray kept going, though, and later gave the ball to Mahrez, who could only send a cross too high for Jamie Vardy to reach.
That was it for the Leicester attack, though. Fans nearby me got flustered at the rest of their play—sideways and backward passes and generous giveaways to United—to the point that one of them yelled “This is rubbish” to no one in particular.
The seconds continued to climb toward 90 minutes—and everyone knew the game was winding down when Mourinho brought in the fro of Marouane Fellaini in the 76th minute to shore up the defense. By the 82nd minute, the United supporters once again starting singing “Cheerio, you’re going down” to the Foxes faithful. Boring.
The full time whistle blew and Ranieri and Mourinho gave each other a sincere good game before Ranieri disappeared from sight. Mourinho remained on the pitch to congratulate and shake hands with each of his players walking off the pitch. United had conquered Leicester and for one night, the Midlands city was red instead of blue.