LONDON: Two stressed Italians will meet in west London on Saturday lunchtime. But the menu set before them will not be an appetising selection of cocina Italiana but a stomach-churning English football specialties.
Antonio Conte and Claudio Ranieri share not their Italian nationality but increasing concerns about the failures of their Chelsea and Leicester teams to find the sort of form of which they are capable but which had deserted them before the international break.
Chelsea, champions in 2014, lost their crown last season to Ranieri’s magnificently surprising Foxes from the East Midlands of England.
The fact that Conte arrived late after Italy’s adventure at Euro 2016, did not appear to matter when the Blues won their first three games in some style. But they took only one point from their next three matches before winning 2:0 away to Hull which, given the Tigers’ plight, was hardly an achievement.
Along the way they also won 4-2 at Leicester in the League Cup but that result has no bearing on Saturday. For one thing, Ranieri put out a deliberately weakened team, perhaps with this upcoming league game in mind.
As for Leicester they have won only one of their last four league games, providing reminders of their successful commitment of last term only in the Champions League with wins away to Brugge and home to Porto.
The missing link at Leicester would appear to have been N’Golo Kante who was sold to Chelsea during the summer and has played every minute of their campaign. His value to Ranieri last season was clear from the statistics: the 25-year-old made more tackles and more interceptions than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues last season.
Now Leicester average 16 tackles and 14 interceptions per game compared with 23 and 22 last season and with Robert Huth and Wes Morgan no longer enjoy the same protection. For example, Leicester now concede 5.3 shots on target per game instead of 3.7.
Daniel Amartey, a January signing from FC Kobenhavn, has taken over Kante’s role but he looked lost in heavy defeats by Liverpool and Manchester United.
The good news for Conte, apart from Leicester’s struggles, is the return to fitness of John Terry. Chelsea’s captain may be in the veteran stage but it is no coincidence that Chelsea’s slump coincided with his absence through a ligament injury. David Luiz has proved an ineffective deputy alongside Gary Cahill.
Conte switched to 3-5-2 formation for Chelsea’s win over Hull and, apart from Terry, will also have the rejuvenated Victor Moses fit again to fulfil his new role as a fast-raiding right back.
Ranieri may be the manager needing a sickness pill on Saturday night.
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