Time for Europe's elite to start taking Leicester seriously
LEICESTER: The obvious answer was Barcelona or Real Madrid. Bayern Munich would have been understandable, too.
But when Gianluigi Buffon was asked which team he would like to avoid in the draw for the Champions League quarterfinals, the Juventus goalkeeper went for competition's big outsider.
"Leicester," the Italy great said, "because it is a dangerous team, a team which will have enthusiasm, a team which has the weapons to cause trouble for teams who want to take the initiative."
Against Leicester, Buffon added, "there would also be everything to lose."
Indeed, the previously unheralded club from central England is making a habit of embarrassing Europe's big teams.
Last season, the cream of English soccer couldn't live with Leicester, which romped to the Premier League title by 10 points at odds of 5,000-1. This season, they've moved onto the Champions League, topping a group that contained two-time European champion FC Porto before eliminating Sevilla — a club that has won the Europa League the past three years — in the last 16.
"We are in there on merit, make no mistake," Leicester manager Craig Shakespeare said, looking ahead to Friday's quarterfinal draw. "We might be the surprise team."
Except no one should be surprised by Leicester anymore. This is a team playing soccer in a simple but highly effective way and specializing in making possible the impossible.
It's time to take them seriously.
Shakespeare was asked after the 2-0 win over Sevilla on Tuesday, which sealed a 3-2 victory on aggregate, whether playing against Europe's power clubs would actually suit his counter-attacking team. He seemed to agree.
"You have to be concerned about the opposition and know their strengths," he said. "But I think as a football club, we have to know our strengths. And you saw that in abundance (against Sevilla), in terms of desire, and we can play a bit as well."
At times, it felt as if Sevilla had never seen Leicester play before, such was the way it was exposing itself to Leicester's high-energy, counter-attacking style. The last thing a team should do when playing Leicester is leave space behind the defense for Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez to run into, or give away free kicks around the penalty area to bring big center backs Wes Morgan and Robert Huth into goal-scoring contention.
Sevilla did just that.
Even during a Premier League season where Leicester has mostly struggled in its title defense, Manchester City and Liverpool showed arrogance in coming to the King Power Stadium and refusing to tailor their tactics to stifle Leicester. They both took the game to Leicester, left gaps in behind and were beaten 4-2 and 3-1, respectively.
Would Barcelona or Madrid or Bayern do the same? Or would they respect the English champions?
"We had a game plan (against Sevilla), we stuck to it and it came off perfectly," said Leicester midfielder and scorer Marc Albrighton, one of the players who does the simple things well — work hard, get good crosses into the box, close down opponents.
Against Sevilla, it was the classic Leicester of last season, the kind of performance that shook the Premier League.
Vardy ran tirelessly, got in opponents' faces — Samir Nasri was given a second yellow for aiming a headbutt at the striker — and was generally a nuisance. Shinji Okazaki was a hard-working link between midfield and attack. Huth and Morgan defended deeply and obdurately. Mahrez showed flashes of his individual ability and set up the first goal for Morgan with a free kick.
In the final days of Claudio Ranieri's tenure, Leicester's players had lost the values that took them to the top of the English game. Those values are back under Shakespeare and it could yet lead the team to an even greater achievement than last season.
Leicester, after all, is 360 minutes away from a Champions League final.