Tuesday 24 April 2018

Heat on Foxes as 'Mission Impossible' gets underway

Claudio Ranieri insists Leicester must have realistic European expectations. Photo: Bruno Fahy
Claudio Ranieri insists Leicester must have realistic European expectations. Photo: Bruno Fahy

Mark Ogden

Claudio Ranieri wiped his brow in the sweltering press room at the Jan Breydel Stadion, laughed out loud, and then declared it would be "impossible" for Leicester City to write the sequel to their Premier League triumph by winning the Champions League.

Thirty-eight years to the day since Nottingham Forest embarked on their European Cup odyssey under Brian Clough, winning the trophy back-to-back after their remarkable league championship triumph, Ranieri and Leicester arrived in Bruges facing the same challenge as their Midlands neighbours.

But Ranieri, taking charge of his sixth different club in the Champions League, was having none of it.

Captain Wes Morgan replied "why not?" to the question of whether Leicester could repeat their Premier League miracle, but the pragmatic Ranieri insisted that the club's supporters should not waste time dreaming of an incredible continental success story.

"It is good when the players believe," Ranieri said. "They wrote a fantastic fairytale last year that nobody believed possible.

"But I think it is impossible (to win the Champions League) because there are so many big teams and we cannot write a second fairytale.

"Leicester showed last season that the impossible is possible, but we want to go into Europe after December, even if it is the Europa (League) for our experience."

If winning it is impossible, what is possible for a team that won the Premier League by a ten-point margin last season?

Read more: Monaco no harder than Stoke, insists Pochettino

"I don't want to make an illusion for our fans," Ranieri said. "Last season, everybody gave 120 per cent and everything was perfect, but perfection does not exist.

"Maybe we are now paying the price for this, but I am happy to pay this price because we did so much last year and now we are here."

The reality for Ranieri and Leicester, however, is that expectations have grown with their success.

Having been placed in Group G alongside Bruges (currently tenth in Belgium's Jupiler League), FC Copenhagen and FC Porto, Leicester's fairytale was given a 'happily ever after' chapter during group stage draw last month.

The Premier League champions could not have hand-picked a more favourable group, but the downside is the pressure to perform and progress. Leicester really should make it into the knock-out stages.


Ranieri, though, remains cautious. "We would like to write some new history for Leicester, but we must be calm and discover, match by match. We have to adapt ourselves, play our football and I know it is different in the Champions League," he said.

Having lost three of five games in all competitions so far this season, including the Community Shield defeat against Manchester United, Leicester face Bruges - who have started the defence of their title with three defeats in six games - with the wheels beginning to wobble, if not yet fall off, following last term's domestic triumph.

Balancing a title defence with a Champions League campaign is not easy, especially for first time entrants.

Blackburn Rovers finished rock-bottom of their group in 1995-96 - an even softer group than Leicester have been given having been paired with Spartak Moscow, Legia Warsaw and Rosenborg - with that sorry episode forever defined by team-mates Graeme Le Saux and David Batty brawling with each other on the pitch during a 3-0 defeat against Spartak in Moscow.

Leicester appear much more settled and unified than Ray Harford's Blackburn ever did, but last Saturday's 4-1 defeat at Liverpool was worryingly heavy, even if Ranieri insists that his players will shrug off the criticism.

"Maybe the critics will criticise us all the season," he said. "Because if the people think about last season, they think wrong.

"It is a new season, totally different. There are teams who haven't won the title for 30 years. We won the title.

"Now we restart, don't think what happened last season. Restart to be safe."

With Bruges expecting its hottest September day since records began - temperatures of 32 degrees Celsius are predicted - the heat will be on Ranieri and Leicester in every sense.

Leicester can perhaps take advantage of Belgian apathy on their Champions League debut. Around 9,000 tickets for the game remain unsold, with Club Brugge fans turning their back on the team's first group stage fixture for 11 years. (© Independent News Service)

Bruges (probable 4-2-3-1): Butelle; van Rhijn, Engels, Denswil, De Bock; Simons, Claudemir; Vormer, Vanaken, Izquierdo; Vossen. (poss Diaby)

Leicester (probable 4-4-2): Schmeichel; Hernandez, Morgan, Huth, Fuchs; Mahrez, Amartey, Drinkwater, Albrighton; Okazaki, Vardy.

Bruges v Leicester, Live RTE Two and BT Sport 2

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