Leicester City are among the top 16 teams in Europe. It’s official – at least on paper – and given their feats over the past 18 months they are unlikely to have many sides queuing up wanting to take them on. And while the celebrations that greeted their passage into the knockout stages of the Champions League were certainly the biggest seen at the King Power Stadium since they lifted the Premier League trophy back in May, the hard reality is that, for Leicester, the hard work starts now.
The Leicester of last season were back on show against Club Brugge, with only Kasper Schmeichel and the departed N’Golo Kante missing from the XI that started the majority of the Foxes’s matches last term. Andy King – who played his own part in Leicester’s success in 2015-16 – was drafted into midfield, and after a poor run of results domestically, the Foxes of old were suddenly on show again.
Brugge, in truth, would struggle to survive in the Premier League if their two showings against Leicester are anything to go by. They again defended in an almost comedic fashion to allow the home side to breeze into a two-goal lead before the break, and though Jose Izquierdo’s stunning strike sparked a second-half onslaught on Ron-Robert Zieler’s goal, the Foxes hung on to not only secure themselves a last 16 spot but also ensure they finish top of Group G following Porto’s draw with FC Copenhagen.
So what now for Leicester? They will not return to this competition until February at the earliest, and by then they expect to have pulled further clear of the dreaded relegation zone. They currently sit just two points above the bottom three with almost a third of the campaign played, and recent shambolic defensive showings against West Brom and Watford have suggested that an early season run of heavy defeats at the hands of a series of title challengers were more than just a reality check of their standing among the country’s elite.
Their bid to progress in the Champions League has undoubtedly distracted them from the bread and butter of top-flight football, but the evidence was there against Brugge that a return to the personnel that won them the title last term is the right way to go for Claudio Ranieri. No longer will he have to rotate his squad in a bid to ensure tiredness does not become a factor ahead of the festive season, and that consistency of selection could be key to them turning their fortunes around.
Despite Islam Slimani’s encouraging start to life in the east Midlands, the partnership between Shinji Okazaki and Jamie Vardy up front seems the most natural for a Leicester side that still relies on selfless running and counter-attacking when in possession given Ranieri’s stubbornness to retain his tried and trusted 4-4-2 formation.
Victories in the Premier League are a must now for the champions, and with Slimani and Mahrez both set to depart for the African Cup of Nations in January they cannot allow themselves to become deeper entrenched in a battle to survive when their standout player and a striker who is – at worst – a very good option off the bench are ruled out for a month. Leicester have shown they are a better team than that, but then again so have plenty of others who have gone onto find themselves in the Championship.
The promise of hosting Bayern Munich, Real Madrid or Paris Saint-Germain may well occupy the minds of Leicester’s supporters in the days and weeks to come, but for the team themselves only Middlesbrough, Sunderland and Bournemouth matter now. A return to the Leicester of old may well be enough to get them back to winning ways where it really means something.