clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The Champions League gives Claudio Ranieri a chance to tinker with Leicester City

New, comment

Leicester have made an uncertain start to the season, and Claudio Ranieri has selection issues to solve. Hooray, then, for the Champions League!

Michael Regan/Getty Images

When something vaguely historic happens it's always best to start with the history, but when it comes to Leicester City's return to European football, we really don't have too much to go on. Leaving aside such oddities as the Anglo-Italian and Anglo-Scottish cups, this will be the Foxes' fourth foray into continental football, and however their games turn out, the six group fixtures will constitute their longest European campaign. And any clean sheet they manage will be their first.

In 1962, Leicester entered the Cup Winners' Cup despite not being cup winners; winning finalists Tottenham had completed the Double and so went into the European Cup. Though they thumped Northern Irish side Glenavon in the preliminaries, 3-1 at home and 4-1 away, they were drawn against Atlético Madrid in the first round proper. After a 1-1 draw at Filbert Street they were dispatched 2-0 in Spain, and Atléti went on to lift the trophy.

Fast-forward 30-odd years, past the invention of the Premier League and the outlawing of the backpass, and we find Martin O'Neill in charge. Two League Cup wins brought with them two entries into the UEFA Cup (now the Europa League) and, in 1997-98, a reunion with Atlético Madrid. It went even less well than the last time: Leicester lost both legs. Three seasons later, they were finally drawn against somebody else — Red Star Belgrade — but didn't fare much better, and after a 1-1 draw at home they went down 3-1 away. For 16 years, the honour of being Leicester's last goalscorer in Europe has been held by Muzzy Izzet.

But not for long! (Probably. They should at least nick a goal somewhere.) At a time when Europe's top leagues appear to be attempting to ensure greater homogeneity in the Champions League, the sudden appearance of Leicester City is extremely refreshing, and we will doubtless see tears from players, staff and fans alike as that glorious anthem booms out and they realise that yes, little Leicester really are die Meister, die Besten, les grandes équipes ... the champions. Well, maybe not tears. Should still be quite the moment.

In that context it seems almost rude to talk about the actual football, yet we kind of have to. Claudio Ranieri's champions have made a muddled start to the season, and while it's clearly far too early to read anything into their Premier League position of 16th, what's been really noticeable about the team is the sudden lack of security. Saturday's 4-1 thumping by Liverpool means they've conceded nine goals in their opening five games (including the Community Shield); that's as many as they conceded in the final 13 games of last season. Yes, that includes games against Liverpool and Manchester United, who are both pretty good when they want to be, and a clean sheet against Arsenal is encouraging, but one clean sheet in five is definitely a surprise, and possibly a concern.

The Leicester of the second half of last season — the Leicester that realised they were in a title race, then managed, astonishingly and rather wonderfully, not to panic themselves out of it — were above all else functional. That's not intended as an insult, or even damningly faint praise; they had a plan, and that plan worked. Worked consistently, which is more than most football teams ever manage. They were a giant sponge concealing a spring-loaded axe: first they soaked up everything the opposition had, and then — TWANGGGGGGKTHUNK! — they split their head open.

That the sponge looks a little saturated and the axe is malfunctioning isn't just down to the absence of N'Golo Kanté as an individual, though there's not a team in the country that wouldn't miss him. But his departure has had knock-on effects throughout the team, perhaps more serious than those that might have followed the departure of Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez. Danny Drinkwater has more to do without "Kanté either side," and the defence has lost one of the most assiduous screening players in the league. We know that Leicester wanted to add another central midfielder during the transfer window — they picked up Nampalys Mendy from Nice, but Adrien Silva ultimately stayed with Sporting — and so we can fairly conclude that they aren't entirely satisfied with the options or depth they have. So far this season, Drinkwater's started all five games, but has been partnered by Mendy, Andy King and Daniel Amartey, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

The other area of selectoral intrigue is more exciting and comes in attack. There is almost certainly some mouthwatering arrangement of attackers to be made from Vardy, Mahrez, Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa, Shinji Okazaki, Demarai Gray and Marc Albrighton, something loaded with pace, skill, pace, goals and a bit more pace. You can never have too much. But probably not a something that includes them all; Wes Morgan doesn't deserve that at his time of life. European football means more football, of course, and though he left well enough alone last season, Ranieri was once known as the Tinkerman. So there will be tinkering, there will be rotation, and there may even be experimentation.

Luckily for Leicester, there are more benefits to winning the title than just getting the big silver pot and the open-top bus ride. Despite having an adorably small European coefficient of 15.256 — lower than every other qualified team except fellow debutantes Rostov — they strutted into Pot 1 as champions, nodding confidently at Barcelona and Bayern Munich, and so reaped the benefits of UEFA's structural favouritism when it came to the group stage draw. Porto will be tricky, but you'd expect them to have enough to hold off Club Brugge and FC Copenhagen.

The Champions League isn't always a dangerous and forbidding place for surprise title winners. Boavista made it to the second group stage in 2001-02, and Bordeaux made it through to the quarterfinals in 2009-10. (Lille and Montpellier fared less well in 2011-12 and 2012-13, both finishing bottom of their groups.) Leicester have the players and the draw to ensure that this isn't just an exercise in sightseeing, and if they make it out of the group then hopefully, come February, Ranieri will have found an answer to his midfield and attacking conundrums. Then, inevitably, they'll be drawn against Atlético Madrid. Vengeance for the ghosts of 1962 will finally be within their grasp.