I sit here writing this with the Sevilla preview in front of me. I remember writing that thinking a mixture of things – I’m going to watch Leicester in Europe and it’s going to be great, and… well, actually, it’s not going to be great, we’re going to be battered, being the main two.
That I’m even writing another one suggests something quite extraordinary happened. Leicester actually did it. Sevilla’s remarkable run in Europe was ended by the unlikeliest of foes and Leicester have defied all odds in making the last eight of the Champions League. I get giddy at the thought of seeing Leicester make the quarter finals of the FA Cup or League Cup, the Champions League is so surreal you can hardly believe it.
But it was earned. Sevilla will rue the home leg. Despite dominating the bulk of the game, they came away with only a 2-1 victory. Leicester were every bit as poor as I expected, but Schmeichel was in inspired form and Sevilla weren’t ruthless in front of goal, and at this level it costs you.
I still walked away from the ground thinking that the result papers over the cracks, it’s a respectable, yet lucky result. They will finish the job in Leicester and that will be that.
But on the day I arrived back in England, along came the news that the club had parted company with Claudio Ranieri. The change was decided after Millwall the weekend before and only implemented after the Sevilla game because the club felt they couldn’t go to that game without a manager. Leicester were widely criticised and many took side with the Italian.
Interim boss Craig Shakespeare has the job until the end of the season, and the turnaround is every bit as dramatic as the downturn in form – although this seems to be a bit of a theme at Leicester. There is never ever a middle ground. Leicester won six straight games in all competitions following the sacking. The reaction was remarkable.
Even despite the change in fortunes, I was stunned that Leicester managed to pull off a 2-0 win in the home leg. It was an absolutely terrific performance that required every little thing to fall into place, and it did. A penalty saved in both legs kind of sums it up.
The draw followed. I should have known it. This is the ninth European draw Leicester have ever had, and for the third time out of those nine, we have been paired with Atletico Madrid.
You just felt it was written. Two of the biggest shock league victories of recent times, two clubs with some similarities in playing style, two clubs who relish being the underdog, and of course, Leicester’s European nemesis. It is worth pointing out that Leicester lost both times previously, and in 1997, in very controversial circumstances. French referee Remi Harrel did not referee a single European game again after this fixture in which he was accused of match-fixing. It remains a mystery. We haven’t forgotten it. Twenty years on, we have been given the chance to settle a score.
I feel like I can comment on this area of the game with some conviction again. I feel that Ranieri had totally lost his way and that each game passed by with no real plan about it. Go onto the pitch, concede, heads drop, concede again. No matter what we did, it was the same end result.
Under Shakespeare, Leicester look so much like the Leicester of last season that it makes you question how much of the tactical side was actually down to him, rather than Ranieri. Leicester lined up against Liverpool following the Sevilla away game with the 4-4-2 they played last season, the exact same XI that was accepted as our strongest (minus Kante, replaced by Ndidi) and the result was the most convincing win of the season over the team third in the league.
Hull, West Ham, Stoke & Sunderland have all fallen in recent weeks to the champions and it is no co-incidence. While there may be an element of a new manager bounce, reverting to the system and style of play that served Leicester so well last year has made all of the difference.
Leicester did lose 4-2 at Everton, but it was a largely changed XI – likely due to the busy schedule which saw a midweek game with Sunderland, and of course, this tie. In-fact, Leicester play every midweek in April. It was a poor display, but it can be forgiven.
Leicester will go to the Calderon without captain Wes Morgan, so Tunisian Yohan Benalouane is likely to take his place. I expect Leicester to line up as Schmeichel / Simpson, Benalouane, Huth, Fuchs / Mahrez, Ndidi, Drinkwater, Albrighton / Okazaki, Vardy. A disciplined back four that stays compact, with a midfield that will try and force Atletico out wide, hopefully planting crosses onto the heads of the centre halves. Okazaki will be there to disrupt the Atletico flow, and Vardy will not give the Atletico defence a moments peace.
Leicester will play on the counter, knowing that in Vardy we can hurt anybody if given the space, but I think there is no better team in the world at dealing with such a threat.
In Antoine Griezmann, Leicester are facing, for me, their biggest individual test of the last few years. I do not see a single player in the Premier League as threatening as him, nor have we faced one in the Champions League. Leicester can stay compact, but how can they handle this kind of brilliance?
I think the vital thing for the first leg is whether Leicester can pinch a goal like in Seville. I do expect Atletico to get a couple, despite how well we can play, but if we lose and don’t score, I think we will be waving goodbye.
The two stand-out players are Jamie Vardy and Kasper Schmeichel.
Vardy is going to be the obvious threat on the counter attack. He is well renowned for his blistering pace and his seemingly ever improving finishing. He delivered at Sevilla and played a big part in the home leg as well with a relentless performance. His direct running is a worry for anyone, even Atletico.
Schmeichel is nailed on to be player of the season. He is currently in UEFA’s team of the tournament and it is entirely justified. He made very big saves at the end of both Kobenhavn games and saved a penalty in both Sevilla games. He is the only player at Leicester who has improved on last season’s performance, and he’s starting to cement himself as one of the top goalkeepers in the game. He needs to show it yet again here.
But watch out for Wilfred Ndidi. The young Nigerian midfielder has a lot in his locker, including an absolute rocket shot with either foot. That could come in very handy against such a compact defence. Marc Albrighton is also in the form of his life in recent weeks.
I cannot make my mind up on whether it will be 2-0 or 2-1. This is where the inner fan gets the better of me and I say we will get that away goal. A loss is a loss, but if we lose the game 2-1, I think we will pull it off at home again. 2-0 and we need a complete miracle.
I hope we go back to Leicester with something to play for. I have never heard the ground anything like what it was against Sevilla, and with it being a round further and a bit of a grudge match, it could somehow top it. This is quite possibly the biggest game in our history, and it would be a dream if we won it.
Photo Credit: SI
Photo Credit: SI