Leicester return to European sanctuary with Club Brugge clash

Title defence has been dismal but form on the continent good

Claudio Ranieri has seen his Leicester side, including Riyad Mahrez, struggle domestically but impress on the continent. Photograph: AFP/Oli Scarffoli

Claudio Ranieri has seen his Leicester side, including Riyad Mahrez, struggle domestically but impress on the continent. Photograph: AFP/Oli Scarffoli

 

There was a question to Riyad Mahrez about whether he could win the Ballon d’Or, another for Claudio Ranieri on the prospect of reaching the knockout stage of the Champions League and a couple for both player and manager on the possibility of being relegated. In many ways it was confirmation that these are strange times for Leicester City as they try to get to grips with a rollercoaster season.

Two points above the bottom three after enduring a sixth Premier League defeat of the season, at Vicarage Road on Saturday, Leicester welcome Club Brugge to the King Power Stadium on Tuesday night needing only a point to guarantee their place in the last 16 of Europe’s premier club competition.

Out of sorts domestically, Leicester have turned it on in Europe, dancing to the tune of the Champions League music whenever it is played. They are unbeaten in four matches, with 10 points earned from a possible 12, and remain on course to become the first team in Champions League history to go through the entire group stage without conceding a goal.

Yet there were times during the press conference on Monday when it felt more like a post-mortem as Ranieri and Mahrez were quizzed on where everything is going wrong in the Premier League. “I was waiting, not for a fantastic start [TO THE SEASON]but not so bad,” the manager said. “Of course I am very happy for the Champions League matches, but the balance is not so good. I am very frustrated with the Premier League.”

One theory is that the big European midweek nights have taken the players’ attention away from what is happening on a weekend, with Leicester collecting only one point from a possible 15 before their five Champions League games so far. Ranieri, however, refuses to subscribe to that view. “I don’t think it’s a distraction. It’s enjoyment,” the Italian said.

Either way, it has now reached the stage where the subject of relegation is starting to crop up. With only 12 matches gone that seems a little premature and Ranieri was quick to make that point. “No, of course, no. I think it is too early to speak about this,” he said. “Of course we have to see behind us what happened. But now we will react and I’m sure we will react well.”

Mahrez, who has come alive in the Champions League, scoring three and setting up one of their five goals in the competition, also insisted becoming embroiled in a survival battle was not in his mind. “I don’t want to think about [RELEGATION]because you never know in football,” Mahrez said. “I know we have good quality to stay in the Premier League, maybe more.”

The overriding message was that there is nothing wrong with the spirit in the Leicester camp. Clearly, though, there are problems to address when it comes to their Premier League form. Leicester have been brittle defensively, overrun in midfield at times and nothing like as potent in attack, where Jamie Vardy’s goals have dried up and Mahrez has been a shadow of the footballer named PFA player of the year in April.

Mahrez has not scored from open play in the Premier League since April and has created only one goal in his past 19 top-flight appearances. Most alarming of all is the disconnect with Vardy, who has received only one pass from Mahrez in 365 minutes of Premier League football and nine in total since the start of the season. To put that last figure into context, this time last season Mahrez had created nine goalscoring chances for Vardy.

Leicester badly need those two players back on song and Brugge, on the face of it, should be ideal opponents to restore a little confidence. Ranieri talked up the threat of the Belgian champions and said he anticipated “not a very easy night”, yet the truth is that Michel Preud’homme’s side were comprehensively beaten 3-0 by Leicester in Brugge in September, when Mahrez scored twice, and are one of only two clubs in this season’s competition to fail to pick up a point so far.

Before the match starts, Leicester should know whether Danny Drinkwater will be charged in relation to an alleged elbow on Valon Behrami in the defeat at Watford on Saturday. Neil Swarbrick took no action at the time but the Football Association are now examining the footage and may speak to the referee to establish whether he saw the incident. “I saw the referee was very close to the incident,” Ranieri said. “He doesn’t whistle or take any consequences, then I think it’s OK.”

It was another piece of news that Ranieri could have done without, although it is perhaps worth remembering amid all the doom and gloom that Leicester, who had not won a game in European competition since 1961 prior to this season, are now on the verge of creating history in the Champions League. “Our fairytale is continuing,” Ranieri said. “We did something special last season and we’re doing it again this season.”

(Guardian service)

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