Sunday 25 September 2016

Ranieri talks crushing Mahrez's neck, the power of the Champions League music and staying calm

Tom Rooney

Published 15/09/2016 | 14:44

Leicester's Riyad Mahrez wraps up the Foxes' 3-0 Champions League win against Club Brugge from the penalty spot
Leicester's Riyad Mahrez wraps up the Foxes' 3-0 Champions League win against Club Brugge from the penalty spot

The beginning of Leicester City’s title defence has been less than impressive but last night, the Foxes embarked on their maiden Champions League voyage with a comprehensive 3-0 win over an abject Club Brugge outfit.

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As Connacht Rugby are also finding out, second-season syndrome is a genuine ailment that can befall even sides who have only just set an historical benchmark for what they consider to be excellence.

Following their improbable title winning tilt, Leicester continued to confound expectations by holding on to the vast majority of the personnel that facilitated their unheralded feat.

Assistant manager and chief scout Steve Walsh was lost to Everton and N’Golo Kante was sold to Chelsea at a staggering profit but, by and large, the same group remains at the King Power Stadium.

Indeed, they added a total of seven new faces to the squad, including striker Islam Slimani, who was bought from Sporting Lisbon for a club record of £28m.

However, the lack of upheaval has not been reflected in their form. Trounced by PSG and Barcelona in pre-season, they were defeated 2-1 by a hugely depleted Hull City on the opening day.

A draw with Arsenal was followed by a victory over Swansea, before Liverpool annihilated them by 4-1 last weekend.

Indeed, Leicester went all of last season shipping just three league defeats, so a pair of losses this early in the day is hardly a portent for more of the same.

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However, last night in Bruges, Claudio Ranieri’s men brushed aside their hosts, thanks to goals from Marc Albrighton and a Riyad Mahrez brace.

The Algerian netted a wonderful free-kick prior to sending home a penalty, both of which were a result of fouls on Jamie Vardy.

Admittedly, Club Brugge, who Manchester United easily dispatched of in the Champions League qualifying rounds last term, are not exactly elite competition, but Leicester performed admirably on what was another venture into unchartered territory for the club.

Mahrez has proven a largely indifferent presence during this nascent campaign but after his exploits last term, the attacker can no longer hide behind the veil of relative anonymity.

The PFA Player of the Year conjured 17 goals and 11 assists in league last season and was closely pursued by Arsenal this summer and, reportedly, Barcelona.

Asked what may have inspired Mahrez’s sudden upturn in form, Ranieri gave a typically unforgettable response.

“Maybe the music woke up him. Maybe he’s tired of dilly-ding, dilly dong and the Champions League music woke him. I liked his (performance), he worked very hard,” he said.

Mahrez has not been particularly prolific from the spot of late and Ranieri, in his own inimitable fashion, admitted that he was hoping that Slimani would assume the responsibility last night. 

“If he hadn’t scored I’d take his neck and crush his neck. He took the responsibility. I tried to say Slimani because he’s a penalty scorer. But he took the responsibility and scored. He was a lucky man.”

Also in Leicester’s group are Porto and FC Copenhagen, so progressing to the knockout stages should be a realistic ambition, regardless of how events are unfolding at home.

However, Ranieri, much like he did before the beginning of the domestic season, tempered expectations.

"I said from the beginning the Champions League will be an experience for us – we hope to get through and play again,. But if not, we want to get in the Europa League – that’s the target.

“We’ve just played the first match; there’s another five to go. We have taken confidence. But let’s stay calm.”

The champions entertain Burnley in the Premier League on Saturday.

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