TINKERMAN? GE­NIUS MORE LIKE

Af­ter four Champs League matches Le­ices­ter still have more points than Barcelona, Manch­ester City, Bay­ern, Real Madrid and Ju­ven­tus

The Star (Kenya) - - Sports International - MARTIN SA­MUEL

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?

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