Can Leicester shock the world, again?

If you were to walk through the hallowed tunnel inside the King Power stadium, just before going out onto the pitch you’d immediately be struck by the two club crests on the wall that sit either side of a quite ominous-looking fox. Above it, is a phrase that the club has championed throughout its long and colourful history. And like so many other mottos, the words inscribed there resonate with everyone connected to the football club.

Whether it’s been battling bravely against relegation, bouncing back from play-off heartbreak, or defying all logic and stunning the world last year in their surprisingly successful pursuit of the Premier League title, one thing Leicester City have never done yet is resigned themselves to their seemingly inevitable fate. ‘Foxes Never Quit’.

'Foxes Never Quit' – a phrase that Leicester's players will very much need to believe in if they're to have any chance of progressing any further in the Champions League.
 Last season you could’ve been excused for thinking that Claudio Ranieri was something of a broken record. His pre-match interviews would see him dismiss any talk of Champions League qualification, reminding everyone that the target was still the infamous ’40 points mark’ before than going on to name an often unchanged starting XI for the following match. What followed then was a similarly repetitive pattern: their deep-lying defence, strong midfield press and lightning fast counter-attack proving too much for opposition up and down the country.

With the Foxes duly crowned champions of England following their heroics under the Italian’s leadership, this campaign has proved to be the polar opposite. In a follow-up season that’s flopped harder than any promising box office sequel, the club now finds itself perilously close to the relegation zone. Just a lone point above, in fact, with only a single win in their last 10 games in the league and no goals scored in 2017 either.

The one beacon of light in what feels like an otherwise disastrous period (compared to last year anyway) for the club has been their European ventures. Three consecutive victories and five goals without reply in their maiden group stage outings made many sit up and take notice and, while it’s fair to say that they were handed a relatively easy draw, after last season’s achievements there’s an argument that the luck was quite fairly merited. At that moment in time things were looking pretty okay, although it was when the remaining three matches began to be played when their nosedive in the league began.

Leicester's 3-0 win over Club Brugge was one of the few times where they've been able to smile so far this season.
 A goalless stalemate in Copenhagen at the start of November initiated that run, and having sat 11th after 10 games they began to slip down the table more and more. All of a sudden their previously fairy tale-like journey in the Champions League was beginning to get tarnished. It was now being painted as more of an unwelcome distraction than anything. That, in combination with them having already guaranteed top-spot going into the final round of fixtures, saw Ranieri put out a second-string side for the away trip to Porto – and they received a 5-0 hiding at the Estádio do Dragão.

The choice to rotate so much looked to be a good one at first, with the regular starting XI going on to record a 4-2 victory at home to Manchester City just three days later. It was a performance reminiscent of the Leicester of last year. But any hopes of the bad streak ending were quickly put to rest. That proved to be a false dawn. And the Italian’s decision, perhaps harshly, like many of his others as of late, was heavily criticised for its detrimental effect on the squad’s morale.

Just over two months – and a continuing run of disappointing league performances – later, we find ourselves in February, with the Foxes preparing for the first knockout round of Europe’s elite continental competition. Unlike during the group stage when the joy of last year was still intact there’s little reason for them to feel optimistic right now though, and if anything they probably look even worse now than they did during the 2014/15 season where they narrowly avoided relegation.

The only real glimmer of hope at the moment comes in the form of Wilfred Ndidi. A January recruit from the Pro League in Belgium, the Nigerian midfielder has had the unenviable task of attempting to fill the N’Golo Kanté-sized void in the centre of the park and has arguably been the club’s standout player in the new year. Having typically been utilised alongside either Nampalys Mendy or Danny Drinkwater, or occasionally both, the former Genk man has made an instant impact. Standing at 6’2, Ndidi is a more imposing physical presence than Kanté, and while he may not have the raw energy and tenacity of the Frenchman, he does seem more comfortable on the ball at least.

New Sevilla manager Jorge Sampaoli has enjoyed a very strong start at the club.
 Much like Leicester, their opponents Sevilla were also champions of something last season. Unlike Ranieri’s team they haven’t had a dramatic decline since their Europa League victory though, and instead look the real deal under new manager Jorge Sampaoli. One of many disciples of Marcelo Bielsa’s, and the former coach of a Chile national side who were also exquisite under his tutelage, he’s brought positional play and a great aggression to the south of Spain.

With a hugely adaptable and fluid side, predicting exactly how Los Blanquirrojos will line-up against their English adversaries is nigh-on impossible. Think Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich, but probably even more irritating. We do at least have an idea of their game model though, and ex-Stoke midfielder Steven N’Zonzi usually operates at the centre of Sevilla’s plans, both figuratively and literally. The Frenchman looks to dictate play from deep and feed the abundance of technical players at his side’s disposal. Chance creation can blossom from any number of attacking sources, their most dangerous asset, with Franco Vázquez, Vitolo and Manchester City loanee Samir Nasri all enjoying stellar campaigns so far.

That trio all scored or assisted during the group stages and will be looking to continue their rich veins of form against a Leicester side who look very vulnerable defensively right now. The sheer aggressive nature of them often leaves their opponents to cave under their pressure they implement, while forwards Wissam Ben Yedder and Stevan Jovetić (who joined on loan from Inter Milan in January) provide the requisite firepower to blow teams out of the water when opportunities do present themselves.

Under Sampaoli's infleunce, Nasri has been one of the most influential playmakers in Europe so far this campaign.
 Given their contrasting fortunes, let alone the undeniable quality gap, it may seem like a near impossible job for Leicester. In terms of both points (49) and the total number of goals scored (46) they’ve been the third-best side in La Liga so far, keeping right on the tails of Real Madrid and Barcelona. A slim positive for the Foxes will be that they don’t quite have the defensive resoluteness of a truly elite team, and there will be space behind their very high defensive line that Jamie Vardy may be able to expose with his pace if he gets the chance.

With three consecutive clean sheets going into this match, though, even that feels like a hollow reason to give Leicester much optimism. They’re likely to have to rely on absorbing as much pressure as possible in a deep block before launching hopeful long balls into the channels for Vardy to run into. Or require Islam Slimani to hold up the ball effectively and bring runners into play on the break. There’s no doubt that Sevilla will have the lion’s share of possession though, and they’ll look to take the game to Leicester and expose what has become a very suspect backline.

Make no bones about it, Ranieri’s men are staring straight into the face of adversity. The European novices competing against serial Europa League winners and current outside contenders for La Liga doesn’t make for good reading. Maybe this is Leicester City, the club that last season rewrote the rules on what is possible, but that ‘Foxes Never Quit’ motto is definitely going to be put to an enormous test.

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Ambitious And Talented, Rui Vitória’s Young Benfica Side Can Cause Dortmund Problems In Europe

As Rui Vitória prowled the Estádio da Luz touchline he must’ve thought he was on the verge of something few believed possible. His Benfica side had just gone into the lead against German giants and strong favourites Bayern Munich, Raúl Jiménez’s 27th minute goal taking their Champions League quarter-final tie with the Bavarians to one-a-piece on aggregate – and deservingly so. Bayern had been largely underwhelming in the reverse fixture, their narrow 1-0 victory considered a flattering scoreline by many who watched it.

Just as Jiménez’s goal suggests, the game on Lisbon soil proved to be much the same for Pep Guardiola and co. as Benfica set about implementing a similar game plan to stifle Bayern’s creativity. Vitória’s men ultimately played out a 2-2 draw which saw them eliminated 2-3 on aggregate, however even so they could exit the 2015/16 edition of the competition with their heads held high. The key thing to take away from it all was how well the Portuguese champions equipped themselves against arguably the best club side in world football at the time.

While Vitória was understandably disappointed to go out against Bayern, there was a lot that he and his talented young Benfica side could take from the tie.
 With Porto and city rivals Sporting Lisbon seen as the only real threats to Benfica’s league crown, the fact they’ve won the last three titles is often dismissed when discussing Benfica’s place amongst Europe’s elite. Playing against clubs of modest stature in the Primeira Liga most weeks leads one to somewhat naturally believe that a side can only be so good. What the untrained eye fails to see, though, is just how much progress the Lisbon outfit have made over the previous three years.

Carrying on from the strong foundation that long-term manager Jorge Jesus put in place between 2009 and 2015, 46-year-old Vitória has adopted a youth-centric approach at the club. Young players, both those bought in from elsewhere and those developed from within their famed academy ranks, have been afforded game time aplenty. And they’ve certainly not disappointed.

Typically deploying a fluid 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 shape, Benfica have mustered their very own style of possession-based football. The defenders are comfortable on the ball and push up, holding a high-line that in turn helps them to dominate play in their opponent’s half. In terms of attacking output, their strength lies predominantly through the middle of the field. Indigenous talent Pizzi operates as the more creative of the two central midfielders and, when in possession, is given licence to dictate play between the lines as he looks to create chances for teammates.

Width is offered to balance that in the form of Argentine duo Franco Cervi and Eduardo Salvio, alongside arguably the teams’ greatest assets: young full-backs Álex Grimaldo (a former La Masia graduate who Barcelona somewhat inexplicably allowed to leave) and Nélson Semedo. The overlaps that those wide defenders make opens up space in the middle for Pizzi to play, and the chances that do come to fruition are regularly taken by poachers Jonas and Kostas Mitroglou.

Pizzi is without doubt one of Benfica's key men in midfield, and he'll hope to be in a celebratory mood by the end of the second leg in Germany.
 Fast-forward 10 months from that Champions League elimination against Bayern and As Águias find themselves facing a second German adversary in the form of Borussia Dortmund. For the most part they’ve been enjoying another good season thus far too, presumably much to the delight of their fans, finishing second behind Napoli in the group stage while looking to be on the cusp of yet more domestic glory; reaching two cup semi-finals (one which has yet to be played) and sitting at the top of the Primeira Liga once again.

The Eagles have had their wings somewhat clipped as of late, though. Injuries to Grimaldo and Salvio have hampered Benfica’s preparations for the tie and given Vitória a headache in terms of how to maintain their quite expansive playing style. The January sale of Gonçalo Guedes to PSG also hasn’t helped matters, with the young talent having often been utilised alongside Jonas or Mitroglou, given his tendency to drop deeper and help Pizzi out on the creative front.

Opponents Dortmund are one of the sides who can empathise the most with that feeling – having continued their trend of selling important personnel and being forced to adjust their game model in the summer. Thomas Tuchel is only three years younger than his counterpart Vitória, and both coaches love to play a possession-orientated game along with moulding the young talent at their disposal. There are quite a few similarities between the clubs and their respective coaches in those respects.

As a result, even though Dortmund are largely considered favourites to progress, we should be in for a more interesting tie than many will expect. One thing to look out for in particular is the space left behind Benfica’s defence and whether the Germans manage to do anything with it. With weapons like Ousmane Dembélé’s tricky dribbling and the sheer electric pace of Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, that’s something which Tuchel will surely look to capitalise on and exploit.

Aubameyang and Dembélé have been in very impressive form this year for Dortmund and Benfica's defence, however good it may be, will be put to the test by them.
 That said, Benfica are far warier to counter-attacking threats than, say, Guardiola’s Manchester City have been this season. The Spaniard actually stated “they possibly have the best back four in Europe” prior to the tie between the Portuguese unit and his Bayern side last April, even going as far as to describe their style as being “the image of one of [Arrigo] Sacchi’s teams.” So they’re more than competent when it comes to football’s defensive disciplines.

The Portuguese side may look to utilise that advanced shape and upset Dortmund by putting pressure on the deep-lying playmaker Julian Weigl. Often left on his own at the base of the midfield in a 4-1-4-1 formation, being able to cut off the German’s attack at its supply line would prove highly beneficial. It’s a far from easy task (just ask Real Madrid), with the 21-year-old already considered one of the best in the world in his position, but if executed correctly then being able to turn over possession high up the field and attack them while they’re out of balance would open up numerous frailties. Tuchel’s men have often shown a vulnerability to pressing in their Bundesliga campaign.

So despite Dortmund’s status as favourites it’s worth noting just how well Benfica can play when on top form. And given that the first fixture is being played at Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz, it will be imperative that the home side can continue to demonstrate their usual defensive resoluteness in particular to avoid an away goal. If Dortmund do manage to get ahead, that backline may get exposed on the counter-attack a lot more than Vitória would like.

If not, though, then Benfica will of course have every chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. They might not possess the phenomenal level of talent that Dortmund do, nor the recent European pedigree, but they will rightly hold hope of causing an upset.

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