RANIEIRI’S LEICESTER TURN FOCUS TO CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
Leicester City’s poor form in the Premier League has led to suggestions that 2015/16’s title winners have chosen to place most of their eggs in the basket marked ‘Uefa Champions League’ this term. A particularly insipid display in Saturday’s 3-0 defeat by Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – a match scheduled just three days before Copenhagen’s visit to the King Power Stadium – seemed to confirm as much, as did Ranieri’s comments in his post-match press conference.
“Yes, of course [I would make] the same decision again because now we have a very tough match on Tuesday evening against a very well-organised team,” the Italian insisted when asked whether or not he had made a mistake in leaving Riyad Mahrez and Islam Slimani on the bench with a view to keeping the Algerian duo fresh for a clash in which another three points would make qualification for the round of 16 more likely than not.
“The Premier League is one year long. The Champions League is two months – [you’re] in or out. We want to go into the knockout stage either in the Champions League or Europa League… to achieve this you need all your players fit and I prefer to preserve some players for Tuesday night.”
Nevertheless, Ranieri was clearly frustrated with his side’s performance against Chelsea at the weekend, with the usually serene sexagenarian growing increasingly animated and agitated on the touchline as Leicester fell behind in the seventh minute and showed few signs of getting back into the game in the 83 that followed.
Ranieri’s men have now lost twice as many matches this term as they did in the whole of last season, with Hull City, Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea having all defeated Leicester so far. They have emerged victorious from only two of their eight encounters, moreover, with just eight goals scored and 14 conceded since the campaign got under way in August.
It has not yet been the sort of robust defence that Premier League champions are usually expected to deliver, then, but it is important to remember that the usual rules should not really apply to the most unlikely title winners in the history of English football. Leicester were always going to struggle to match their achievements of last year and it is therefore perfectly understandable that they have chosen to prioritise the Champions League, a tournament which they may not take part in again for a very long time.
Consecutive triumphs against Club Brugge and Porto have left them in an excellent position in Group G ahead of their third European outing this week. Danish champions Copenhagen have also started well, collecting four points from a possible six to sit second in the standings, but Leicester will fancy their chances of maintaining their 100 per cent winning record in front of their own supporters.
The defensive issues that have plagued them domestically have not yet reappeared in the Champions League, where they are one of only four teams yet to concede a goal, while their counter-attacking game plan has also borne more fruit on the continental stage. It is likely, though, that the key reason for the contrast between Leicester’s form at home and in Europe is a matter of motivation.
“It’s normal when a team for the first time in its life plays in the Champions League for concentration to be very, very high,” Ranieri said on Saturday. “When you play in the Premier League, it’s not the same. I can understand this.”
Victory against Copenhagen would mean another step towards the knockout rounds of Europe’s foremost club competition, while fully vindicating Leicester’s order of priorities in the process.