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Aug 4, 2014

Premier League Preview: Leicester

The ESPN FC guys look ahead to Leicester City's first run in the Premier League since 2003-04.

Lessons from last season

Leicester are back following a decade-long Premier League hiatus after romping to the Championship title with a club-record 102 points. In 2013-14, only Brighton and (infuriatingly) East Midlands foes Nottingham Forest left the King Power Stadium with three points, as the Foxes recorded 17 home wins.

Leicester also beat Premier League opponents, seeing off Fulham 4-3 in round four of the League Cup. However, the visit of Manchester City in the quarterfinals will remind Nigel Pearson of the task at hand and pour cold water over the Thai owners' stated aim of qualifying for Europe anytime soon.

Manuel Pellegrini's Sergio Aguero-less reserves cruised to a 3-1 victory, and the gulf in class suggests the Foxes won't be troubling the top half of the table, despite their dominance last campaign.

Predicted starting lineup

Leicester
Nigel Pearson will have Leicester playing a defensively solid 4-4-2.

What's new?

Nigel Pearson has fostered a genuine winning mentality, probably for the first time since Martin O'Neill left for Celtic in June 2000.

In their last couple of Premier League seasons, under Micky Adams and Peter Taylor, Leicester was notorious for conceding comical late goals that Benny Hill would have been proud of. The back four really was as brittle as a bag of Walkers Crisps. This time around, while one would fully expect the Foxes to flirt with relegation, there won't be too many hammerings or late lapses.

Up front, Leonardo Ulloa has joined for a club-record 8 million pounds from Brighton. The 28-year-old Argentine, who has deceptive pace, scored 16 goals last season and should add some much-needed flair.

Also keep an eye out for midfielder Jack Barmby and versatile left-back Louis Rowley. Barmby is hoping to follow in the footsteps of his father Nick, while Manchester United assistant Ryan Giggs has said that United were pretty disappointed to lose Rowley, although the acquisition of Luke Shaw has surely numbed the blow.

PREMIER LEAGUE PREVIEWS

As we count down to kickoff on Aug. 16, ESPN FC previews all 20 teams in this season's competition. Can Burnley, QPR and Leicester stay up? Will the new signings of Alexis Sanchez, Diego Costa and Adam Lallana help usurp Man City's crown? Will Manchester United get back on track under Louis van Gaal?

Strengths

Leicester looks very strong in central midfield. Former Manchester United duo Matty James and Danny Drinkwater forged a productive partnership last season, with the latter picking up the player of the season award.

The pair are tenacious and, more importantly, possess intelligent football knowledge. They weighed in with 12 league goals last term, and if they can repeat that feat in the Premier League -- a big request -- the Foxes can avoid the drop.

Nigel Pearson also has Welsh international Andy King at his disposal.

The club's all-time top-scoring midfielder is still only 25 and, although he has fallen out of favour, is a tremendous option from the bench.

The trademark during Leicester's Premier League pomp was the Guppy-Lennon-Izzet-Savage quartet. With the addition of winger Marc Albrighton from Aston Villa and the ever-improving Algerian Riyad Mahrez, Leicester's midfield looks pretty formidable. Unlike a decade or so ago, there's far more depth, giving Pearson some welcome selection headaches.

Weaknesses

There's not too much Premier League experience among the ranks, and those with it (Matthew Upson, Dave Nugent) aren't guaranteed starts.

Foxes fans' biggest fear is that the goals could dry up. Leicester scored a staggering 120 in the league last season. Of course, they won't repeat that feat, but history suggests just over half of that total is comfortably enough to survive.

Since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, only two sides have been relegated after scoring more than 70 goals in a season: Middlesbrough (75) in 1992-93 and, fittingly, Leicester (77) in 2003-04.

The cliched theory is 40 points is paramount to stay up, but only Wolverhampton (2010-11) have required that total since the millennium. So forget points; if Leicester score 65-70 goals the Foxes will surely avoid the Championship trap door.

The problem is players like Nugent, Leonardo Ulloa, Chris Wood and Jamie Vardy may not have anywhere near that amount in them. Let's not forget that last season's top scorer, Nugent, managed just six for Burnley during his last flurry in the top flight.

A little like LeBron James' first spell at Cleveland, some fans would almost prefer just one proven Premier League goal scorer in a weak squad over a more balanced team, like Leicester, who are less clinical.

Nigel Pearson's biggest concern will be getting enough goals out of his attack.

Manager - ESPN FC profile

It is a tad unbelievable that Nigel Pearson is still in charge of Leicester. The 50-year-old quit at Hull City in 2010, citing the club's lack of ambition, only to return in 2011.

A little-known fact is that he was forced out during his first spell by former chairman Milan Mandaric, who purposely failed to tell Pearson that a lucrative Thai takeover was on the cards. Had he known, and stayed, Leicester could have avoided the frivolous spending during Paulo Sousa and Sven-Goran Eriksson's brief spells and potentially reached the Premier League earlier.

Pearson is a true tactician, and his no-nonsense management style has fortunately ensured a squad devoid of divas. Leicester's patient owners will in all likelihood give him a full season, irrespective of results, but the worry is that if he keeps the Foxes up, there could be other clubs lurking.

Looking at other clubs, it would be surprising if Alan Pardew lasts a full year at Newcastle -- especially after the infamous head-butt. Pearson had two spells as caretaker (2007, 2008) at St James Park, so he would be a natural replacement, and has also been linked with West Ham and Everton in the past. There's absolutely no doubt bigger teams will be keeping a close eye on how he fares this season.

ESPN Stats & Information
ESPN Stats & Information

Key player

We certainly saw the worth of goalkeepers at Brazil 2014, and although Kasper Schmeichel is no Manuel Neuer just yet, he could be one day.

The 27-year-old Dane is definitely a bit of a sweeper keeper. He loves to surge out of his box and even, on occasion, into the opposing area. In March, he technically scored against Yeovil, but his header was wrongly ruled not to have crossed the line.

The fact that the 27-year-old rejected interest from AC Milan (and reportedly Manchester United as well) to sign a new four-year deal is a massive coup for Leicester. Schmeichel played every minute last season and conceded only 43 goals. In particular, the key period that paved the way for promotion was a 14-game unbeaten run during which he kept seven clean sheets. Goalkeepers rarely get enough credit, but Schmeichel is certainly Leicester's best player.

Predicted finish: 16th

Although the top half of the Premier League is stronger than ever, at the bottom there's a raft of teams pretty evenly matched and thus all equally susceptible to the drop.

Expect Leicester to continue last season's impressive home form and survive by the skin of their teeth, albeit emphatically testing fans' patience in the process.

The Foxes may not quite amass 40 points but, as previously stated, that total probably won't be necessary. Pearson's side have the quality to finish above fellow new boys Burnley and QPR. Southampton -- due to the mass player exodus at St Mary's -- and Gus Poyet's Sunderland may also slip below Leicester.

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