Champions League preview: Sevilla v Leicester
Venue: Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, Wednesday, 7.45
TV: Live on RTÉ 2 and BT Sport 2
Claudio Ranieri's press conference was drawing to a close when the Leicester City manager was reminded that Seville is famous for bullfighting. Ranieri had already started to smile before the reporter finished a question about whether the Italian should be seen as the matador or the bull in the first leg of their Champions League last 16-tie against Sevilla. "If I have the balls?" Ranieri replied, laughing. There was a little pause before he added: "The matador."
Ranieri went on to talk about the need for “matadors, gladiators and soldiers” at Sevilla’s enthralling Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, where Leicester City will play arguably the biggest game in their 133-year history when they take on Jorge Sampaoli’s exhilarating team for a place in the quarter-finals of the Champions League.
The key question is whether Leicester can put their wretched domestic form behind them and, inspired by the sense of occasion once that Champions League anthem starts playing under the floodlights in one of Spain’s most atmospheric stadiums, rediscover the indomitable spirit of last season, when Ranieri’s team were fuelled by an inner belief that anything is possible.
Ranieri was quick to point out that the rewards of an unexpected result in southern Spain could extend well beyond the opportunity to reach the last eight of Europe's premier club competition. "Sevilla could be the turning point, it could be everything," Leicester's manager said. "We can lose – it's okay, nothing happens. But if we win, if we do a very good game, something inside could change. We need one match like this."
The Leicester of last year would have savoured this sort of contest, where the odds are stacked against them, yet so much has changed since the tenor Andrea Bocelli serenaded the King Power Stadium on the day Wes Morgan and Ranieri thrust the Premier League trophy into the sky.
Nine months on and Leicester are one point and one place above the relegation zone. They have not scored a Premier League goal for more than 10 hours, going back to the end of 2016, and became the first reigning English champions since 1956 to suffer five successive top-flight defeats this month.
Sevilla, in contrast, sit third in La Liga, two points behind second-placed Barcelona and three adrift of the leaders Real Madrid. They recently brought Real Madrid's 40-match unbeaten run to an end with a victory that confirmed their status as authentic title challengers and know a thing or two about knockout competitions after winning the Europa League three years on the spin, including beating Liverpool in last season's final.
Sampaoli replaced Unai Emery as coach in the summer and it is a measure of Sevilla's progress under the Argentinian's watch that he has emerged as a leading contender to take over from Luis Enrique at Barcelona. The former Chile manager did his best to sidestep that issue on the eve of this fixture, preferring to focus on the threat that Leicester could pose on the counterattack against a Sevilla team that like to play with a sense of adventure that can leave them exposed defensively. "We want to go on the attack a lot but we run a risk," Sampaoli said. "If they strike us quickly we'll suffer."
Leicester, however, have not looked like troubling anyone lately and Ranieri will hope Sampaoli was right when he predicted Jamie Vardy will "be able to drive Leicester back from their troubles when he gets his goalscoring touch back".
Vardy, who is still looking for his first Champions League goal, has scored in only one game for Leicester since September and probably the biggest concern of all for Ranieri is that the striker who was so influential in their title success is having so few chances. He has registered only 11 attempts on goal across 27 appearances in the Premier League and Champions League.
Sitting alongside Ranieri, Vardy admitted he was at a loss to explain why things have unravelled so spectacularly for Leicester. “I wish I could put a finger on it myself so that we can change it around, but it’s not been easy,” he said. “Things have been tough and haven’t clicked, it’s a bit strange. But this is a game where we can forget about that for one night.”
One source of encouragement for Leicester is that they have saved their best form for the Champions League, winning four of their six matches in the competition so far. Riyad Mahrez has come alive in those games, scoring four goals in five appearances, which is one more than he has managed in the Premier League, where the Algerian has often given the impression that he is going through the motions. Leicester need Mahrez to be on the top of his game in Seville.
With Islam Slimani ruled out through a groin injury, Shinji Okazaki is expected to start, meaning Leicester's starting XI is likely to feature 10 of the 11 who were mandatory picks en route to winning the title, with N'Golo Kanté the notable absentee and Wilfred Ndidi his replacement.
As for Ranieri, he is determined to plough on, whether bullfighting in Seville or scrapping for points in the Premier League. “I could leave last season – nobody could tell me nothing,” he said. “I won the title, I have something, but I wanted to stay because I knew it was a difficult year. I came here to build something good for Leicester and I keep going. I forgot the title, I go back and I want to achieve something good for these fans, for the chairman and for the city.”