Sunday 26 May 2019

Leicester finding their feet in shallow end of Europe

Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo: Eric Vidal/Reuters
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri. Photo: Eric Vidal/Reuters

Paul Hayward

It was a neat trick by Leicester to make the start of their first Champions League campaign feel like their first Premier League winning season.

Turning the page to Europe, Claudio Ranieri's team also turned it back to 2015-16 in England, when they were irresistible.

This was Leicester's burst on to the continent but it felt like a reassuring Premier League fixture, complete with blasts of You'll Never Walk Alone from the Club Brugge supporters, which must have reminded Ranieri's men of their thrashing at the weekend.

That defeat, and crossing the sea to Belgium, put Leicester back in touch with who they were less than five months ago. They were ahead after five minutes, via a tap-in from the dependable Marc Albrighton, and extended their lead before half an hour was up through a Riyad Mahrez free-kick.

Mahrez scored again after an hour, this time from the penalty spot, as Europe (or the lesser parts of it) started to feel like a natural hunting ground.


There was particular comfort to be felt from Mahrez's crisp stroke of a dead-ball just outside the Brugge penalty box. Their smoothly automated play last season featured many graceful moments, most of them involving Mahrez, the most skilful player in the division.

To see him hurting a team with such lovely execution was a reminder that Leicester possess a lot more than just an intimate knowledge of route one.

A Champions League debut brought a commanding first-half performance against mediocre opponents and a debut for the club's record signing, Islam Slimani, who cost £29 m, and replaced Shinji Okazaki alongside Jamie Vardy in Leicester's traditional two-striker formation.

Ranieri resisted the temptation to respond to the Liverpool defeat by packing his midfield and was vindicated when Leicester dominated Brugge by being themselves, rather than some clever tactical construct.

The Champions League is such a corporatised world now that you forget the competition is still open to clubs with heavy-industry era stadiums. Inside the stands, the Jan Breydel Stadium is a place of Formica tables, pendants and souvenirs from long-forgotten trips. In parts of the ground you could be in a darts club, or certainly the 1970s. There is no gastro food here.

Suffice to say there were no nosebleed seats for Leicester's fans, à la the Nou Camp, and no megastore to amble around before kick-off. Structurally, this is the world Leicester have left behind, with their King Power Stadium, billionaire Thai owners and Premier League title. Their Champions League debut felt a bit like an elevated FA Cup tie.

Some of those 1,400 Leicester fans doubtless wanted to leap in at the deep end, in Milan or Madrid. But that first English championship has earned them a gentler start, with Porto and Copenhagen still to come. Really, the shallow end is a much better place to begin in a competition of this difficulty, especially with Leicester's league form.

If the world was mesmerised by their outrageous trashing of the English class system, it has yet to translate into a rush to see them in European action. Brugge expected 9,000 of the 29,000 seats here to be vacant and that looked about right when the whistle blew.

Their manager, Michel Preud'homme, said: "Maybe 'fans' have the wrong perception of the quality of the opponent. The Belgium press says it's not a big team but I say they are.

"If Arsenal are here, everyone will want to see Arsenal, but Leicester won against Arsenal, Manchester City, Manchester United and Chelsea and so on. At this moment it means this team are better than the others."

Those Belgian fans who stayed away missed the chance to see what qualities Leicester imposed on a league campaign they started as 5,000/1 'rags', as they say in racing. That was surely worth a look, especially as Leicester lit a beacon for smaller clubs across football?

Many more than the official 1,400 travelled over from Leicester, Loughborough and Melton Mowbray, given access to tickets.


The extra opportunists who did so found little difficulty in buying seats among the locals.

This was the Leicester they, and we, wanted to see: the redoubtable and ruthless outfit who ran away with the league title last season.

After the Mahrez goal from a free-kick came a Vardy gallop into the Brugge box and a last-ditch foul to bring him down. Again, this was like travelling back to last season, without the frequent doubt, this time, about whether Vardy had exaggerated the contact. Mahrez belted home, as if to prove he can do power as well as panache.

The lesson: Leicester's formula last season was true for that marvellous season and can be so again, if the players can summon the same enthusiasm. The excitement of Europe did its job of showing this side what the possibilities still are, home and abroad. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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