Lagging Leicester eye Champions League tonic
LONDON: They may be slipping into a relegation battle in the Premier League, but Leicester City can create another piece of club history in Tuesday’s Champions League encounter with Club Brugge.
Three points clear atop Group G and still to concede a goal, Leicester will be assured of a knockout-round spot if they avoid defeat against Brugge or FC Copenhagen fail to win at home to Porto.
Leicester have taken to their first Champions League experience like seasoned campaigners and for manager Claudio Ranieri it is a sign that the fire from last season’s extraordinary title win remains aflame.
“Now there is the opportunity to go to the top of the group. It would be a fantastic achievement,” he told Monday’s pre-match press conference at the King Power Stadium.
“I remember from the beginning, I said for us it was important to go into the knockout phase, of the Europe League or Champions League.
“Our fairytale continues in this way. We did something special last season and this season we are doing something special.
“For the first time in our lives we are playing in the Champions League.”
Leicester lost 2-1 at Watford in the Premier League on Saturday — their sixth defeat of the campaign — and currently sit just two points above the relegation zone in 14th place.
Jamie Vardy has gone 13 games without a goal and Riyad Mahrez has found the net just twice in the league, both times from the penalty spot.
But though their league title defence was effectively over before it had even begun, it has not prevented them from making a mark in Europe, where they have found their old underdog attire still fits.
Their first three group games were all preceded by heavy league defeats, but each time Leicester bounced back to win.
They crushed Brugge 3-0 and secured gritty 1-0 home wins over Porto and Copenhagen before grinding out the goalless draw in Copenhagen that took them to the brink of the last 16.
– ‘We must react’ –
Along with Sevilla, Ranieri’s side are one of only two teams still to concede in this season’s competition.
Their domestic toils mean this looks likely to be a one-off sojourn among Europe’s elite and Mahrez, for one, is determined to atone for Leicester’s dispiriting league form.
“We see the strength of the squad and we must react,” said the Algeria winger and Ballon d’Or nominee, who scored twice in the reverse fixture on September 14.
“Maybe there’s frustration. It’s not that we don’t play well, it’s about losing the game. I know we’re going to react.”
Five points adrift at the foot of the group, Brugge must claim a first win in England at the 13th attempt and hope Copenhagen do not beat Porto if they are to pip the Danish club to the Europa League berth.
It is a tall order, but the Belgian champions restored a little bit of belief by winning 1-0 at Sint-Truiden on Friday following three games without victory in all competitions.
“The joy is huge for us,” midfielder Hans Vanaken told the club website.
“We played good games at Charleroi and Zulte Waregem, but did not get the deserved points. We played less well (against Sint-Truiden), but we were rewarded.”
The visitors will be without suspended Dutch midfielder Ruud Vormer and injured Malian striker Abdoulay Diaby.
But coach Michel Preud’homme was able to name Lior Refaelov in his squad for the first time since the Israel international underwent abdominal surgery in August.
Ranieri has confirmed that close-season signing Islami Slimani will be unavailable due to a groin injury, leaving Shinji Okazaki and Ahmed Musa competing for the right to partner Vardy in attack.
In the absence of first-choice goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel, who has a fractured hand, German Ron-Robert Zieler is due to make his Champions League debut between the posts for Leicester.