Leicester eye another piece of history
Remember Claudio Ranieri? The man who penned the most romantic story in football’s annals by making Leicester City English champions and who walked away from Sevilla’s stadium last month believing he could write another in the Champions League.
Well, if a week is a long time in football, three weeks between last-16 legs in Europe’s elite competition is a positive eternity with Ranieri already fondly consigned to history.
It is to the chagrin of many in Leicester that their Italian folk hero has gone, denied the opportunity to try to guide them into the quarterfinals at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday.
Instead, in his old assistant Craig Shakespeare, who on Sunday was handed the manager’s job until the end of the season, a city -- and an impatient club board -- now trusts.
At 2-1 down and with Jamie Vardy’s away goal offering a raft to cling to on a night when Leicester were outplayed, Ranieri had not unreasonably felt the result might be the turning point in a woeful season.
Alas for the Italian he was right.
The next day Leicester’s Thai owners ditched Ranieri and from that moment the entire complexion of this knockout tie was transformed.
After the ’Shakespearean’ age dawned, Leicester managed to find fresh belief to chisel out two crucial Premier League wins that have eased them away from the relegation zone.
At the same time, Sevilla’s refreshing drive for the Liga title hit alarming roadblocks with two draws so undistinguished that their demanding fans booed them off the pitch on Saturday after the home match against lowly Leganes finished 1-1. The setback prompted hand-wringing from coach Jorge Sampaoli, who warned that if they did not rediscover their fluidity in a hurry they would exit the Champions League.
In Leicester’s revival, with 3-1 wins over Liverpool and Hull City, Sampaoli has noted with concern how they appear to have reverted to their disciplined, title-winning best.
Porto must follow in Barcelona’s footsteps and achieve a Champions League first on Tuesday if they are to overcome Juventus and reach the quarterfinals.
The Portuguese league leaders will have to claw their way back from a 2-0 home defeat in the first leg, something which has never been done in the knockout stage since Europe’s top club competition was reformed in 1992.
Only two sides have even managed to overcome a single-goal deficit away from home in the last 25 years - Ajax Amsterdam against Panathinaikos in the 1995/96 semifinals and Inter Milan against Bayern Munich in the round of 16 in 2010/11.
Juve’s recent home record makes the task even more daunting.
The Serie A titleholders have not lost in their own stadium since their 1-0 defeat to Udinese in August 2015, a run of 45 games in all competitions. In European competition, they are unbeaten in their last 20 home games since losing 2-0 to Bayern Munich in the Champions League in April 2013.
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