Monday 22 January 2018

Leicester ready to create another football fairytale

Leicester striker Jamie Vardy Photo: PA
Leicester striker Jamie Vardy Photo: PA

John Percy

Premier League champions Leicester City are making a mess of their title defence, but they can qualify for the Champions League knockout stages tonight. Here's how they've made light work of European football.

Luck of the draw

Any fears over being handed a group of death in their first experience of the Champions League were extinguished in Monaco.

Leicester's reaction must have been privately one of elation.

Though Leicester have played like seasoned veterans in the competition, the draw was fortunate, to say the least. Club Brugge, champions in Belgium last season, have been the punchbag while FC Copenhagen are resilient but limited.

Porto are not the force they once were and have been forced to sell players amid huge financial problems.

The lack of travelling has also proved a major factor: Leicester's combined air miles total just over 3,300, compared to Spurs, who are clocking up over 5,000 with trips to Moscow, Monaco and Leverkusen.

Counter-attack culture

While Leicester's struggles in the Premier League continue to bewilder, their performances in Europe have largely been impressive.

Jamie Vardy insists the surprise factor and lack of knowledge about Leicester's approach has been a huge asset. Their pressing game and speed on the counter-attack, allied with physical strength in defence, has caught many of their opponents unawares.

Vardy said: "We just go into the games knowing what we can do and trying to impose ourselves on the opposition. I don't think they've really had the chance to see how we play as much, like a Premier League club would, and I think that's come across as a bit of a shock to some of them.

"We know that if we play our football, especially how we did when we played Brugge away from home, then we will get the point."

Leicester have also been ruthlessly clinical. Only six clubs have had fewer attempts at goal than Leicester's 27, and yet they have still amassed 10 points.

Rampant Mahrez

Ranieri famously claimed in Bruges that the Champions League anthem seems to "wake up" Riyad Mahrez, and the statistics back him up.

Mahrez is underachieving in the league but in Europe he has been involved in four of Leicester's five goals so far, contributing three goals and one assist.

He is the PFA Player of the Year, was deservedly nominated for the prestigious Ballon d'Or last month and seems to come alive when that music is played.

He and Vardy also seem on a closer wavelength in the Champions League.

Astonishingly the Algerian has passed to Vardy just once in the last seven Premier League matches, whereas he has found the Englishman 12 times in four European games.

"When I was younger we wanted to play in the Champions League and now we are playing in this and we are doing well," said Mahrez.

"But there is no special game for me because all the games are important and I enjoy them all. I wanted to stay in Leicester because I wanted to grow up with this team and play in Europe."

Defensive resilience

Wes Morgan and Robert Huth have both looked shaky at times on the domestic front this season but in Europe they have displayed the imperious performances that enabled Ranieri to lift the title.

Leicester and Sevilla are the only teams not to concede a goal so far in the competition and no English team making their debut has ever secured such a notable statistic.

The excellent Christian Fuchs has been consistent at left-back, while Kasper Schmeichel's two late saves against FC Copenhagen were outstanding.

There will undoubtedly be pressure on summer signing Ron-Robert Zieler to record a clean sheet tonight after Schmeichel suffered a broken hand in Copenhagen.

Prioritising Europe

Ranieri has denied that the Champions League has proven a distraction to their title defence but it almost feels like the other way round.

Leicester have lost four of their five league games before Europe and Ranieri's team selection has reflected the importance placed on reaching the knock-out stages.

Vardy and Mahrez were taken off at half-time in the 4-1 defeat at Manchester United in order to be rested for the Porto game, while Mahrez was on the bench for the 3-0 loss at Chelsea.

It is proving a costly strategy, though, with Ranieri already fielding questions about potential relegation battles at his press conference yesterday.

Ranieri said: "If you see how we lost you can say 'oh, yes they are thinking about the next match'. I don't think the Champions League is a distraction, it is something to enjoy.

"I was not expecting a fantastic start (in the league) but not so bad. Of course I am very happy with the Champions League matches but the balance is not so good and I am very frustrated about the Premier League.

"It is important to react again, that means our character is very strong."

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