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Leicester are talented and ready to add to Liverpool's woe in Premier League

Liverpool's Sadio Mane insists the side are working to have the most threatening attacking force in the Premier League.
Sadio Mane says it's too early to rule Liverpool out of the Premier League title race.

Liverpool's trip to the King Power Stadium always looked difficult. Leicester are precisely the sort of team whose rapid-fire counter-attacks could exploit the Reds' incorrigibly leaky defence. But now, with Jurgen Klopp's squad hampered by injuries, this game looks as safe as a 50-yard dash through a densely packed minefield.

Too much will be read into Leicester's midweek 2-0 victory over Liverpool in the Carabao Cup when, with sweeping changes on both sides, it was merely a run-out for fringe players instead of a proper cup tie. There is more than a whiff of the old Pontins reserve league about that competition now. Nevertheless, there are plenty of other reasons to be fearful of the Foxes.

Leicester are 15th in the table with just one win (over Brighton & Hove Albion) this season and a negative goal difference, but they've been dealt a horrendous start by the fixture computer and are better than the table suggests. They were unfortunate not to take anything at all from two hard-fought battles with Arsenal and Chelsea, and there are ominous signs for those willing to look a little closer.

Riyad Mahrez, who ghosted through their dismal title defence last year, has two assists to his name already and looks back to his player-of-the-year best, while Jamie Vardy has rediscovered the tenacity that makes hm such a dangerous striker and has hit four goals in five games. The Foxes are highly unlikely to ever challenge for the title again but have no doubt: they're quite capable of landing blows on Liverpool this weekend. (And lest we forget, they thrashed Liverpool 3-1 in Craig Shakespeare's first game in charge after Claudio Ranieri's dismissal.)

They also have something that Liverpool would love; a brand new central defender who looks to have improved the team. That fairytale title success of 2016 was built on the bedrock of the Robert Huth/Wes Morgan axis, two indomitable, fearless 33-year-olds who boast in strength what they lack in pace. Set deep against teams who would win more possession and protected by the nuclear-powered N'Golo Kante, they held firm through the unimaginable pressure of the title race. But age is finally beginning to weary them. Someone new had to step up to provide support. Shakespeare chose Harry Maguire.

Eyebrows were raised at the size of the fee (a whopping £17 million handed over to relegated Hull City) but given how swiftly he has settled, it looks like a bargain now. His early season form was enough to win him a call-up to the England squad and if he continues to impress, a full debut won't be far away.

Liverpool fans will have cause to look at the size of that fee and wonder what might have been. Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip are both doubts for Saturday's fixture, a plight that could result in either a partnership between Ragnar Klavan and Joe Gomez or, possibly, the use of Emre Can as a centre-back. Neither is an ideal solution but with just two clean sheets in nine games (against Crystal Palace and Arsenal), even a fully fit squad is rather less than impregnable. They could have done with a player like Maguire to bring them closer to the level of their rivals.

Leicester's win in midweek was impressive but the Foxes' first-team have the tools to hurt Liverpool.

Opinions differ as to the cause of Liverpool's fragility. Many have leapt to Klopp's defence to argue that he cannot be held responsible for the repeated individual errors of his players. His critics, however, point out that he had an entire summer to bring in players less prone to mistakes but squandered the time in a vain pursuit of Virgil van Dijk. Whatever the reason for strategy, it wasn't a question of money. The club had £40m to spend on Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, another midfielder for the collection. They might have been better off spending half of that on Maguire.

Liverpool's ability to produce breathless football is without doubt, but it continues to be the case that while they could beat anyone on their day, they could lose to anyone too. Recent results have seen a huge surge in criticism of the manager, including one spectacular rant on a national radio phone-in that called for Klopp's head. But this view, propagated with great enthusiasm on social media, doesn't seem in keeping with the feeling among match-going supporters (link).

There is, of course, profound frustration with the same defensive failings and/or poor finishing that compromises all the exhilarating attacking play, but talk of a Klopp exit is rather premature. There's still great admiration for the way he conducts himself, his willingness to give young players a chance and the breathlessness of his team when its firing on all cylinders. It was, after all, barely a month ago that Liverpool blew through Arsenal like a shockwave.

Klopp is popular and he can sustain punishment for a while longer but that won't last forever. Difficult fixtures await in Moscow and Newcastle before the arrival of Manchester United after the next international break. If Liverpool get a result on Saturday and enter that run of fixtures in good spirits, they could quickly get their challenge back on track. But if they lose at Leicester with yet another defensive slip-up, don't be surprised if their fans look at their back line, then look at Maguire and then wonder about the priorities of the decision-makers at their club.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.

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