“Now we have to fight!” It is a soundbite that has almost been a constant during Claudio Ranieri's press conferences over the past 12 months. Whether it is fighting to win the Premier League or to avoid relegation, showing bravery and heart seems to be the bare minimum Ranieri expects of his side.
However, if there has been one thing severely lacking from Leicester’s performances for the most part of this season, it is fight. Players have been consistently slammed for showing a lack of effort in the Premier League, a characteristic which has seen them sucked into a relegation battle they do not look like winning.
In the Champions League, however, there have been signs of life from the English champions. Four wins out of six saw them top their group, and against Sevilla in the first leg of their last 16 tie it was again evident that this is the competition into which they seem – rightfully or wrongfully – to be putting the bulk of their efforts.
When Joaquin Correa doubled the home side’s lead early in the second half, the writing was on the wall for Leicester. Too many times this season such a match situation would have led to many of Ranieri’s players downing tools and waiting for the final whistle, but in Andalucia this was not to be the case. Leicester got their away goal through Jamie Vardy and head into the second leg at the King Power Stadium with real hope that they could yet progress to the quarter-finals.
That is not to say that Leicester did not ride their luck at times, particularly in the first half, where Kasper Schmeichel was again in inspired form. The Dane has been Leicester’s star performer this season and his saves in both group matches against FC Copenhagen ensured the Premier League champions picked up four points rather than one.
At the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium, the former Manchester City stopper began his evening by saving Correa’s weak penalty before pulling off a string of fine stops to ensure his team remained in the tie far longer than they maybe deserved to. He may have finally conceded his first goals in the competition following four clean sheets in the group stage, but this was yet another night when those clubs who are likely to be on the lookout for a new goalkeeper this summer will have sat up and taken notice.
Vardy’s goal was as much a reward for Schemichel’s superb performance as it was for the rest of the team’s improved second-half display, but there are still huge problems in this Leicester side that must somehow be rectified ahead of the return leg. Wes Morgan. Robert Huth and Christian Fuchs are a liability defensively without N’Golo Kante ahead of them, and it is difficult to see how Ranieri can make any substantial changes that will keep Jorge Sampaoli’s swashbucklers at bay for another 90 minutes.
Daniel Amartey may be an option given his impressive showings at centre-back for Ghana during the African Cup of Nations, but with Ranieri seemingly reluctant to trade out the players that performed so admirably for him last season, it is unlikely such a change will be made. Instead, it will likely need another superb Schmeichel showing and a little bit of luck for Leicester’s fairytale to continue.
The fact that the fairytale remains alive is a minor miracle, though. Vardy’s goal means Leicester have plenty to keep them dreaming of on the flight back to the east Midlands. Whether it can inspire them in the Premier League battles to come remains an unanswered question for now, but there is still some fight in this Leicester team. Which is just as well, because they are going to need it.