Leicester City: Do European glory and relegation await?
Foxes' Champions League fairytale continues, but now Claudio Ranieri must focus on the Premier League
Leicester City are enjoying another fairytale in Europe, joining the continent's elite in the knockout stages of the Champions League.
A 2-1 victory over Club Brugge, combined with Porto and Copenhagen's goalless draw, confirmed the Foxes as winners of Group G with a game to spare. They will now be one of the seeded teams when the draw for the last 16 takes place in Switzerland next month.
First half goals from Shinji Okazaki and Riyad Mahrez, who scored from the spot after Marc Albrighton was fouled in the penalty box, were enough to see off the Belgian side.
However, Leicester's proud record of not having conceded a goal in the Champions League fell in the second half, when Jose Izquierdo scored the first goal against them in 412 minutes, making them the last team to concede in this year's competition.
"Even allowing for the fact that they were not handed the toughest assignment in Group G, Leicester’s achievement should not be overlooked," says The Guardian. "They have won four of their five Champions League matches and played with freedom and belief in a competition in which their interest will now be extended until March next year."
Only nine teams out of 46 making their debut in the Champions League have qualified for the knockout stages since 2002, says the Daily Telegraph, adding: "Ranieri's men have cruised into the last 16 to contradict their status as European novices, and there seems to be something about this competition that makes you believe the fairytale could have another chapter."
With the group secured, Leicester travel to Porto for their final match "with no heavier burden than their luggage", says the Daily Mail. "Claudio Ranieri might even make changes for the game."
That luxury "is the preserve of seasoned European campaigners", adds the paper. "Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson for example. Not Leicester, who three years ago this week were hosting Millwall in the Championship."
But the fact Leicester have won more points in five Champions League games this season (13) than they have managed in the Premier League (12 in 12) is cause for concern and Ranieri is starting to face awkward questions about his side's domestic form.
"While the Foxes continue to fly in Europe, their Premier League form has not been as good and they currently sit just two points outside the relegation zone," says Sky Sports. "Leicester are 500-1 to win the Champions League and be relegated from the Premier League this season."
Champions League adventure keeps Leicester City smiling
Their league form may be a mess but their Champions League performances have been masterly and tonight Leicester need just a point from their Group F at home to Brugge to become the second English club this season to qualify for the last 16 of the competition, after Arsenal.
To date the Foxes have dominated their group, winning three and drawing one of their matches, and along the way creating a little slice of European history by becoming the first team to keep a clean-sheet in their first four games on their debut in Europe's premier competition.
"Our fairytale is continuing, we did something special last season [in winning the Premier League] and we're doing it again this season," said manager Claudio Ranieri, who knows his side could seal first place with a win tonight if Porto also fail to beat FC Copenhagen. "For the first time in our lives we are playing Champions League football and maybe we'll go the knockout stages which would be fantastic."
It would also distract from their poor league form. The latest disappointment came on Saturday with a 2-1 defeat away at Watford, Leicester's fourth loss in their last seven games. It leaves them lying in 12th position and Ranieri admitted that qualifying for the last 16 this evening would allow the club to "go back to the Premier League and try to improve our table".
When it was pointed out to the Italian that Leicester have yet to win a League match this season prior to playing a Champions League match, he dismissed the suggestion the European games were weakening their domestic focus. "I don't think it's a distraction, it's enjoyment," he said. "I don't see the difference. If you see the match against Watford and the match against Copenhagen or Brugge or Porto, it's the same. The difference is in the Champions League matches we score, in the other matches no."
Riyad Mahrez is one of the Leicester players who seems only to lift his game for the European matches this season, having scored three goals and provided one assist in the Champions League. His domestic form, in contrast, has been poor and the Algerian admitted that playing in Europe was special. "When I was younger we wanted to play in the Champions League and now we are playing in this and we are doing well," he said, although he was quick to add: "There is no special game for me because all the games are important and I enjoy all the games."
Mahrez's Algerian teammate, Islam Slimani, is definitely out of tonight's clash with Brugge after failing to recover in time from a groin injury, joining a casualty list that includes defender Ben Chilwell and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.