TINKERMAN? GENIUS MORE LIKE
After four Champs League matches Leicester still have more points than Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern, Real Madrid and Juventus
Leicester did not, after all, qualify for the Champions League knockout stage in the manner of Europe’s aristocracy.
You know, the 100 per cent cruise; four wins from four matches; cigars and the reserve team out by matchday five. The way a Barcelona or Real Madrid usually progress. It was not for the likes of Leicester after all.
There is a single 100 per cent record left in Europe and it belongs to Atletico Madrid. Full credit, then, to Leicester for coming so close in thuye 0-0 draw against FC Copenhagen.
After four matches they still have more points than Barcelona, Manchester City, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Juventus. Their 10 point total and goal difference of plus five would be good enough to top the groups currently led by Napoli, Barcelona and Monaco.
Even so, they still have some work to do. Not much. One point from their next two matches will be enough to qualify, and as their next game is at home to Bruges who have not taken a point from a Champions League match so far, the road ahead looks relatively benign and well lit.
Leicester should be in the last 16 by the end of the month, probably as group winners, depending on the outcome of the match between Porto and Copenhagen. Either way, it is a win, win for Claudio Ranieri and his team from here.
Finish first and they could avoid one of Europe’s giants and draw beatable opponents again. Ranieri has been almost faultless in laying out his team for this competition – starting Wednesday night’s game with three at the back was the exception – and he could easily do it again given, say, the likes of Benfica or Besiktas in the next round.
Finish second, or catch a rotten draw - the second placed team of Atletico Madrid and Bayern Munich, for instance, or Real Madrid, who are currently trailing Borussia Dortmund – and it is a fan’s dream come true. Leicester versus Real Madrid in the Champions League knockout stage? Leicester versus Bayern Munich? Who ever thought they would see the day?
This was no classic but it should not be forgotten that Leicester are the champions of England, not some lucky lottery winners, and as such have world class performers in their ranks. Kasper Schmeichel is one, as capable as any goalkeeper in the league on his day, and he came to Leicester’s rescue on Wednesday night when seconds remained on the clock.
It was the same player, former Cardiff City striker Andreas Cornelius, who was frustrated with a goalbound header, Schmeichel saving brilliantly, although Federico Santander should perhaps have done more to turn in the loose ball that resulted.
Leicester City are yet to concede a goal in the Champions League after four games. Cynics will say Leicester drew a weak group – although that is rightly among the benefits of being pot one seeds as Premier League champions – but the way they have handled it as Champions League novices does them enormous credit.
They are the first team to achieve four clean sheets in their first four games in the competition, the first team to start with a four game unbeaten stretch, too. Sevilla are the only other club in this campaign yet to concede a goal. So, yes, relatively Leicester’s group was easy. But it didn’t have to be this easy.
Some big names have gone down in Copenhagen: Ajax, Galatasaray, Manchester United. The Schmeichel save aside, Leicester were largely comfortable, once they got the system sorted out.
A nervy back three switched to a smoothly oiled four, and Leicester got what they came for. Copenhagen had a couple of chances in a two minute flurry midway through the second-half when Benjamin Verbic shot over the bar and a cross by Ludwig Augustinsson was kept out in a scramble by a combination of Schmeichel and Christian Fuchs, but Leicester had the rest of it in hand. As Copenhagen tired, so Leicester threatened on the counter and had Riyad Mahrez picked out Jamie Vardy in the perfect position midway through the second-half, they would almost certainly have won. It was a rare aberration from Leicester’s creative heartbeat.
Ranieri is held in too high regard in English football these days to be decried as a Tinkerman. Genius, is a likelier tag and if he isn’t FAIFA’s coach of the year for 2016, the rest of his profession may as well give up.
Even so, the 3-5-2 formation that started the game for Leicester had little on its side beyond novelty. Having had so much success at home and more lately in Europe playing with a back four, Ranieri’s dramatic change came as a shock.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth looked as comfortable in the system as they would if asked to express their feelings through the medium of jazz dance and by the end of the first-half, three Leicester defenders were in the book and the new plan consigned to the dustbin. Leicester went to 4-4-2 and immediately applied the first real pressure to Copenhagen’s back line.
Of course, Leicester are in a position to afford the odd gamble, but Copenhagen have the capacity to surprise – it is 28 games since they last lost in the Parken stadium – and they certainly had the better of the first half, with plenty of long balls into Santander.
Under normal circumstances this would not trouble Leicester in the least, but the demand of a back three was doing strange things to the minds of even the most reliable types. Players who normally looked so sure were uncertain. Sloppy mistakes were made, possession lost cheaply, clearances misfired.
Still tougher tasks lay ahead no doubt, but for now, why mess with the classics?