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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