Leicester City ready to seize chance against Sevilla

Craig Shakespeare’s side better equipped to give Sevilla proper game


Round of 16, second leg

Leicester City (1) v Sevilla (2)

King Power Stadium, Tuesday, 7.45pm


Live: TV3, BT Sport 2

Leicester are a totally different proposition now

On the face of it not much has changed. In fact the Leicester team that starts against Sevilla at home will probably show only one difference from the XI that lined up in Spain, with Shinji Okazaki picked ahead of Ahmed Musa.

There is, however, a new manager in the home dugout and Leicester have been transformed as a result.

Whether that is down to the players wanting to prove a point post-Claudio Ranieri or Craig Shakespeare making one of his own with small but significant team and tactical alterations is a matter of debate, but there is no doubt that Leicester are a totally different proposition now.

Back-to-back wins against Liverpool and Hull carried signs of the Leicester of old as they played at a high tempo and pressed aggressively high up the pitch, winning the first game after blowing their opponents away with their intensity and the second by showing character to come from behind.

Rightly or wrongly, the players look liberated. Okazaki’s return has given the team greater balance, Jamie Vardy has thrived on a much improved supply line and Riyad Mahrez’ goal against Hull will have done his confidence the world of good.

Sevilla, in short, can expect a proper game this time.

Vardy’s goal at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan stadium never made a blind bit of difference when it came to Ranieri’s future – the Italian was sacked less than 24 hours later – yet it totally changed the complexion of this tie.

Despite being outclassed in Seville, Leicester escaped with a narrow defeat and, as result of Vardy’s away goal, know that a 1-0 victory will be enough to secure a place in the quarter-finals.

Knockout football

That will be easier said than done, of course. Sevilla, who won the Europa League for the third year in succession last season, are experts when it comes to knockout football.

They have progressed in their past 12 two-leg European ties, which is some record, and anyone who witnessed their 2-1 win against Leicester in Spain would not be optimistic about the prospects of the English club keeping a clean sheet.

Samir Nasri and Steven N’Zonzi ran the show, completing more passes than the entire Leicester team, yet the real damage was done on the flanks, where Sevilla’s full-backs, Mariano Ferreira and Sergio Escudero, played like wingers.

How Leicester cope in those wide areas will be crucial on a night when Shakespeare promised that his team will “play on the front foot”.

Being 90 minutes from a Champions League quarter-final surely qualifies as once-in-a-lifetime territory for Leicester’s supporters and the majority of their players.

Leicester are in uncharted waters at this level and it would not have taken Uefa long to go back through the record books and document the Premier League champions’ European history when they were putting together their media handout before Sevilla’s visit.

The headline statistic is that this is only Leicester’s fifth two-leg European tie in more than 50 years, with the 7-2 aggregate victory against Glenavon, in the European Cup Winners’ Cup preliminary round in the 1961-’62 season, the only time they have come out on top.

All of which puts the second leg against Sevilla into context, certainly for Leicester fans of a certain age and in many cases for the players, very few of whom would be confident of hearing that Champions League anthem again during their career.

That is why, for everyone in a Leicester shirt, it is all about seizing the moment in what is the biggest game in the club’s 133-year history.

Club in crisis

Sitting third in La Liga, Sevilla can hardly be described as a club in crisis, yet Jorge Sampaoli’s side have lost vital ground in the title race after drawing twice in the space of a week, with their disappointing performances leading to a wave of negativity and criticism that ought to encourage Leicester before a ball has been kicked.

Sampaoli has talked about how his players have suddenly become “very anxious” and lost their fluency, which in the manager’s eyes is the reason why they are no longer creating so many chances.

Clearly frustrated, the Argentinian felt the need to issue a warning to his team that their Champions League journey will come to an end in Leicester unless they improve.

The players are also feeling the heat. Stevan Jovetic said there was a need to “lift morale” after Sevilla were booed off following 1-1 draw at home against struggling Leganes on Saturday, with the former Manchester City striker suggesting the players should hold a “long conversation together” to get to the bottom of where things are going wrong.

Leicester, in what feels like something of a role reversal, must capitalise on any mental fragility.

Addressing the media on the eve of the Sevilla tie, Shakespeare was reminded of the miracle of last season and how Leicester, to borrow one of Ranieri’s quotes, “made the impossible possible”.

With that in mind Shakespeare was asked whether Leicester could defy the odds again and go on to win the Champions League.

“Why not?” the 53-year-old replied, not hesitating for a moment.

In one respect history is on Shakespeare’s side. The last time an English club won the Champions League, back in 2012, the manager was a promoted number two who had been appointed in March on an interim basis until the end of the season.

Roberto Di Matteo had taken over from Andre Villas-Boas at Stamford Bridge and the Italian’s first European assignment was a last-16 tie at home, where Chelsea needed to win (by two clear goals) against Napoli after losing the first leg away.

The circumstances, in that sense, are remarkably similar. Whether Shakespeare is capable of reprising Di Matteo’s rather miraculous run to the final – Chelsea rode their luck at times – is another matter. Leicester couldn’t . . . could they?

Guardian Service