Champions League:Leicester city grab another UCL Win (Leicester 1-Copenhagen 0)
In three Champions League outings, Leicester City have done what they couldn’t in eight Premier League matches. Win three games. Reach nine points.
The Jekyll and Hyde nature to their season meant that with victory over Copenhagen Claudio Ranieri’s team overtook their domestic points tally in Europe and now stand on the brink of reaching the knock-out stages at their first attempt.
What a wonderful achievement that would be, and proof in neon lights of why Ranieri is quite correct to prioritise this competition. Leicester achieved a miracle last season in winning the title and given a repeat was never under serious consideration claiming a place alongside the continent’s 16 finest sides is a magnificent follow-up.
While they appear vulnerable in the Premier League, they have now gone 270 minutes without conceding in Europe, and here faced opponents of decent heritage. Copenhagen, the Danish champions, were unbeaten in 23 games before Tuesday night but were edged out by Leicester, who have found a rhythm in the Champions League that other debutants could only wish for.
A large dose of gratitude for the shut-out must go to Kasper Schmeichel, who produced a stunning save in the 90th minute. Pressing for an equaliser, Copenhagen forward Federico Santander pulled back a cross that was met flush by Andreas Cornelius 10 yards out.
But playing against a club from his home country for the first time Schmeichel was not to be beaten. He adjusted his feet superbly and dived right, bringing a strong wrist to block to the fast-travelling ball.
For the decisive goal, Leicester went back to the future, reverting to the tactics that got them the Premier League title but with new personnel.
Ranieri recently hailed Jamie Vardy, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez as the future of the club and while they failed to click for large parts of the first half they combined to beautiful effect five minutes before the interval
Leicester had been a little hesitant to press Copenhagen in their own half, a trademark of last season, but pushed forward in unison as Christian Fuchs grabbed back possession and fed Danny Drinkwater.
The midfielder, a perpetual engine across the park all night, found Vardy in rare space on the left and there followed a high looping cross that at first looked too deep.
But Slimani sensed the trajectory, peeling off the back of Erik Johansson and heading square where Mahrez had taken advantage of a momentary lapse in the Danish defence to ghost into space. His deft finish from close range was a delight.
The Algerians had linked up in the opposite direction for the goal that defeated Porto here last month and Ranieri could not contain his joy that their understanding from international games bore fruit again.
The stadium had lift off, with home fans chanting ‘Who are you?’ back at those travelling fans who had sung the same before kick-off in perfect English.
But Copenhagen are forging a reputation in this season’s Champions League, having gone eight previous games from the second-qualifying round undefeated, and nearly struck level before half-time.
In the 43rd minute Youssef Toutouh took aim from 25 yards and hit a shot that ballooned up via a deflection off Wes Morgan and dipped wickedly, but only onto the roof of Schmeichel’s net.
From Ludwig Augustinsson’s resulting corner, Andreas Cornelius escaped the attentions of Robert Huth to steer a header down and only narrowly past the far post.
So Leicester again ended a first-half ahead in Europe, their third in three games. But this had been a 45-minute period of lesser quality than managed against either FC Bruges or Porto.
For much of it they still seemed to be shaking the cobwebs that have entangled their domestic form. They looked quickly for balls over the top but failed to quite find range.
Slimani, rested for Saturday’s 3-0 defeat at Chelsea, was tearing around with the energy of somebody who hadn’t played all year never mind all week, but the transitions were not smooth.
At one point Ranieri wheeled away in frustration as an opportunity to counter-attack went backwards and on the half hour, when he demanded Marc Albrighton put the ball out of play so Federico Santander could receive treatment, it was as much a gesture of sportsmanship as a chance to grab a timeout with his players.
At that stage Copenhagen were keeping the game tight and Mahrez on the periphery, while displaying some of the neat touches that had earned them a draw with ten men in Porto and a 4-0 beating of Bruges.
They troubled Leicester from the wings and early on brought a superb defensive header from Morgan with one devilish cross. Their noisy fans had lit a dozen or so red flares before kick-off and the fog that swept across the pitch seemed to embolden their side.
But in the second period Leicester really found their groove, beginning when Mahrez nutmegged Augustinsson to feed Andy King, playing instead of Daniel Amartey, whose cross would have reached Slimani but for a slip.
In the 64th minute Mahrez seized on a high ball to dribble into the area but his shot was blocked. There were Leicester cheers three minutes later Albrighton’s low cross was bundled home at the second attempt by Slimani. But the flag was raised for offside, incorrectly as replays showed.
Stale Solbakken tried to change things for his side but just as on his last match in England, in charge of Wolves against Luton for a League Cup tie in January 2013, the result was defeat. For Leicester, they keep winning in Europe. Not a bad habit to have.