LEICESTER: In progressing to the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time, Leicester City preserved a golden thread stretching back all the way to last season’s miraculous Premier League title success.
The thread has worn close to breaking in recent weeks, with Leicester’s perilous slide towards the relegation zone costing popular manager Claudio Ranieri his job.
But after overcoming a 2-1 deficit to beat Sevilla in the Champions League last 16, the sense of fearlessness that became their hallmark a year ago has returned.
“They looked so fluid and had such amazing passion and determination,” the club’s former manager David Pleat told BBC Radio 5 Live after Leicester’s 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday.
“I don’t think they would want either Real Madrid or Barcelona in the quarter-final. But who would have thought they would win the title last year? So whoever they face, who knows?”
As well as Barcelona and Real Madrid, Juventus, Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund also lie in wait in Friday’s last-eight draw.
Atletico Madrid and Manchester City are in pole position to join them ahead of the final two last 16 second legs later on Wednesday.
Asked who he hoped to avoid in the quarter-finals, Juve’s emblematic captain Gianluigi Buffon replied: “Leicester.”
The prospect of a genuine European superpower arriving at the King Power Stadium will further help to restore some of the magic dust that had been rubbed off amid Leicester’s domestic toils.
Eliminated from both cup competitions and fighting to keep themselves above the Premier League bottom three, the Champions League represents their only hope of prolonging last season’s fairytale.
Wednesday’s Daily Mail back-page headline said Leicester could “CARRY ON DREAMING”, while The Guardian said victory over Sevilla had seen Leicester “write a new fairytale”.
The Times said Leicester were “back in fantasy land”.
The great irony of Leicester’s resurgence is that it has taken the dismissal of Ranieri, architect of the title win, for the players to start playing like they had last season.
– ‘Play to our strengths’ –
They had already found the Champions League to be well-suited to their preferred contain-and-counter strategy, however, having recorded four wins and kept four clean sheets during the group phase.
Ranieri tried to introduce greater sophistication to Leicester’s tactics, notably deploying Riyad Mahrez in a central role in the 2-1 first-leg loss to Sevilla, which was to prove his last game.
But the instant impact enjoyed by his successor Craig Shakespeare suggests Leicester’s players are both happier and more effective with the simple 4-4-2 formula used to such devastating effect last season.
“I think we have to play to our strengths,” said Shakespeare, Ranieri’s former assistant.
“You have to be concerned about the opposition, and know their strengths, but as a football club, we have to know our strengths.
“You saw that in abundance in the performance (against Sevilla), in terms of desire, but we can play a bit as well.
“(Beating Sevilla) epitomises what we’re about.”
Tactical factors only go so far in explaining the Leicester turnaround under Shakespeare, which started with successive 3-1 wins over Liverpool and Hull City.
The sight of Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki once again breathlessly harrying opposition centre-backs suggested the change has been as much psychological as anything else.
“There had to be something wrong there,” observed former England right-back Danny Mills, a Champions League semi-finalist with Leeds United in 2001.
“All those fans who thought it was a disgrace that Ranieri was sacked, they have got to eat some humble pie.”
With Leicester still only three points above the Premier League relegation zone, their players cannot afford to be distracted by dreams of European glory for too long.
But with the Champions League music guaranteed to boom out around the King Power on at least one further occasion this season, the Leicester fairytale may yet have more magic in store.