Wednesday, March 22, 2017

Leicester City's dream won't end in Madrid.

I am not a Leicester City Football Club fan, but I have followed their run from relegation survivors to Premier League champions like a hawk hovering its prey. I haven’t been able to take my eyes off them for a number of reasons; their underdog tag, their battler archetype, and their fighting grind. But when they face Atletico Madrid in the Champions League quarter-final, the Foxes’ dream is finally at risk of coming to an end. 

Christian Fuchs celebrates the Foxes win over Sevilla.

Leicester’s decisive midfielder and last season’s Professional Footballers' Association Players' Player of the Year, Riyad Mahrez, suggested late last week that winning the Champions League was ‘impossible’. A fair suggestion given the clubs’ they would have to surpass to even get to the final. 

With Atletico their next hurdle, Leicester would be looking at tackling the likes of Borussia Dortmund, Monaco, Juventus, Barcelona, Bayern Munich, or Real Madrid should they move past the quarter-final stage. 

While Mahrez has no doubt played down his side’s chances of even progressing to the final four, he did pay recognition to what his side are capable of on their day. 

"We're capable of the best and the worst. We won the league last year when no-one believed in us, no-one expected us. This season, we're in the quarter-finals even though we're 14th, 15th in the Premier League,” the Algerian told SFR Sport. 

“We're a crazy team, we can do everything. We're capable of going I don't know where.”

It’s been just one month since the Leicester City owners made the difficult decision to cut ties with manager Claudio Ranieri following a shocking run of results. Down and out in 16th place on the Premier League ladder, the Foxes had not won a League game since New Year’s Day; were barrelled out of the FA Cup against Millwall; and had just lost 2-1 away to Sevilla in the Champions League. 

A tremendously bold decision by the King Power hierarchy given the sentiment surrounding their 133-year wait for a title, but one that has now been vindicated. The Foxes have won all four matches since assistant Craig Shakespeare took over, and importantly, seem to have their mojo back. You know; that fearless fight, relentless aspiration, and never-say-die attitude. 

Against Sevilla, before Claudio Ranieri was sacked, something happened at halftime that led to Leicester returning more determined than they’d played all year. Jamie Vardy looked like the greyhound chasing a hare he can be when pressing the ball; and crucially, he broke a goal-scoring drought, providing much-needed confidence to himself and handing the Foxes a vital away goal. In the stands high above the Ramón Sánchez Pizjuán Stadium, Vardy’s goal also gave 2,500 travelling Leicester fans some hope. And that’s all they needed. 

Two weeks later when Sevilla arrived to the King Power Stadium in Leicester for the return leg, it was evident the fans had their mojo back. The atmosphere was labelled the best of the year, the players played like the team of old, two goals were put in the back of the net, and a quarter-final birth was secured. The King Power Stadium was buzzing. 

Leicester player celebrate after progressing to the Champions League final 8.

Following that night in Sevilla and with Ranieri sacked just a couple of days after, Leicester have gone on to embarrass Liverpool, put three through Hull and edge past West Ham. Furthermore, they’ve had seven different goal scorers across their four games. Vardy & Mahrez have also scored more than once, proving their attacking threat has resumed. 

Both actually look like themselves again; Vardy up to his usual antics of getting penalties and people sent off, Mahrez twisting and turning players inside out like a washing machine. The influence of goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel can not be undersold either, his performances over the last month have been nothing short of brilliant.

So when Leicester return from the international break to take on Stoke, Sunderland and Everton before they head to Vicente Calderón Stadium to take on Atletico in the Champions League, will they keep their form alive? 

The Vicente Calderón Stadium - No easy place to play.

If they can, they remain a realistic chance of keeping the dream alive. While Mahrez gave a grim outlook of their chances, make no mistake – Leicester can get past Atletico if they want to. It will come down to their desire, their belief and whether they refuse to give up. 

The Champions League is a knockout competition and teams can falter in a game and be out the back door the next. If Leicester turn up in Spain ready for a fight, anything could happen. Impossible is only a suggestion until it’s done, just like 5000-to-1 right? 

Bring on Thursday April 13, because the dream’s not dead.  

Foxes Never Quit.