Leicester City resume their UEFA Champions League campaign on Wednesday night as they travel to Southern Spain to take on high-flying Sevilla.
After progressing top of their group, the reigning Premier League champions clash with Los Blanquirrojos in the first leg of the round of 16 tie with the hope of progressing to last-eight of Europe’s elite competition. Sevilla meanwhile, will look to fight off the faltering Foxes and reach the Champions League quarter-finals for the first time in just under 60 years.
How did they get here?
Miraculously, Leicester City reached the last-16 of the tournament after progressing top of Group G, continuing their magical story. Drawn against FC Porto, Club Brugge and FC Copenhagen, the Foxes swaggered into the next round, albeit with a 5-0 defeat in Portugal somewhat souring their progression.
Earning a 3-0 win away at Brugge, along with 1-0 wins against Porto and Copenhagen at the King Power Stadium, Claudio Ranieri’s Foxes secured qualification soon after. A stalemate in Denmark and a 2-1 victory over Brugge at home powered the East-Midlanders through to the next round.
Elsewhere, Sevilla had to settle for second place in Group H behind a resilient Juventus outfit. Two victories over Dinamo Zagreb along with a win against Lyon, plus 0-0 draws against the Old Lady and the French outfit was enough to see the Spaniards progress, their only loss coming in the form of a 3-1 home loss to Max Allegri’s men.
Could the Foxes find the back of the net in their toughest test yet?
Therefore, in travelling to Spain, Claudio Ranieri’s troops come up against an extremely talented and well-organised outfit so supporters will not be hopeful of the team breaking their duck in front of goal at the Estadio Roman Sanchez Pizjuan.
Since the turn of the year, Leicester have only scored seven goals, all in cup competitions. As a result, the teams’ form in the Premier League makes for dismal reading; heavy defeats to he likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Southampton, not to mention FA Cup elimination at the hands of League One Millwall, has seen the champions plunge new depths.
Ranieri’s men now languish only one place and one point above the Premier League relegation zone so will be desperate to recapture their title-winning form in Spain.
However, their opponents are currently enjoying a wonderful campaign. Currently just behind Luis Enrique’s Barcelona side in third place in the La Liga standings, Jorge Sampaoli’s team has impressed. Winning 15 of their 23 games this campaign, the reigning Europa League winners have picked up some crucial wins, namely a 2-1 victory over Real Madrid that halted Los Merengues’ 40-match unbeaten run back in January.
European big-boys vs European new-boys
Having hoisted the Europa League three times in as many years, the Spaniard’s will be huge favourites going into the match. Dispatching of Liverpool in last season’s Europa League final, Sevilla lifted their fifth Europa League title, all within the last 11 years. It’s fair to say then, that the Spaniards know their stuff in European ties.
Although, one stumbling block has always been the Champions League. They have only managed to progress to the quarter finals once, when they met Real Madrid in the last-eight way back in 1958. As a matter of fact, Sevilla have only reached the final-16 on two further occasions as they were eliminated by Fenerbahce in 2008 and CSKA Moscow in 2010. Therefore, if the Foxes could exploit this small chink in the armour, they might just stand a chance.
Having said that, Leicester City have never managed to overcome Spanish opposition in European competition, losing three times and drawing once, all against Atletico Madrid. In fact, this is the first time that the Foxes have managed to progress beyond the first round of any European competition, excluding preliminary rounds. This means that Ranieri and his team are heading into uncharted waters.
Those waters may indeed have to be navigated by a some would say sinking ship. Already light in defence, Claudio Ranieri lost Molla Wague in the loss to Millwall, the January signing sustaining a painful dislocated shoulder.
The Italian also looks to be lacking in an attacking sense too. Strikers Islam Slimani and Leonardo Ulloa are both only just recovering from injury to it remains to be seen whether they will be risked for the trip to Spain, especially with a relegation battle on the mind.
Furthermore, with fellow forwards Jamie Vardy and Shinji Okazaki both desperately struggling for form, it is difficult to call who will be relied upon on Wednesday night. Ranieri though will pray that Riyad Mahrez can get back to his best. Having already notched four goals in the Champions League so far, the Algerian has impressed, a stark contrast to his Premier League form. January recruit Wilfred N’didi could make his Champions League debut after being drafted into the Foxes squad since his signing from KRC Genk.
For the clash with the Premier League champions, Jorge Sampaoli will more than likely field players familiar to fans of the English game. On-loan from Manchester City and Inter Milan respectively, Samir Nasri and Stevan Jovetic have both become key players in the team, the latter already netting three times and earning three assists since signing in January.
Reported one-time Foxes’ target Stephen N’Zonzi is also crucial, morphing into one of the best defensive midfielders in Spain since his arrival from Stoke City.
Nonetheless, it’s the Spaniards forward-line that Leicester will have to be wary of. Wissam Ben Yedder has already scored 15 goals this season, with Luciano Vietto not far behind with 10 strikes to his name.
Sevilla: Rico; Mariano, Lenglet, Carrico, Escudero; N’Zonzi, Iborra, Nasri, Sarabia; Ben Yedder, Vietto.
Leicester City: Schmeichel; Simpson, Amartey, Morgan, Chilwell; Mahrez, Drinkwater, N’didi, Gray; Vardy, Okazaki.