On the eve of this match, Claudio Ranieri spoke of his wish for his Leicester City side to show their true face – or, as he put it, “their strength, their love for football, the team, for Leicester”.
Ranieri’s words were a response to suggestions, after their latest Premier League stumble at Chelsea last weekend, that his title-winning team had lost their way a little, and his players certainly fulfilled his wish last night with a battling victory over København that took them to the brink of qualification for the last 16 of the UEFA Champions League.
The way they ground out a third straight Group G win had echoes of last term’s title run-in and, according to captain Wes Morgan, was evidence their spirit is very much intact.
“It’s much more like last season,” said Morgan. “We showed a lot of spirit, a lot of fight throughout the whole of last season which gave us our success and today was a reflection of that. We played OK but we really dug deep and won our individual battles, which is what Leicester is all about.”
If Morgan embodied that defiance by shrugging off a sore back to complete the 90 minutes, there were signs across the pitch of what Leicester are about when they have the bit between their teeth – from Riyad Mahrez’s deft winning strike and Jamie Vardy’s haring after balls over the top to a victory-clinching Kasper Schmeichel save.
“It was a fantastic save,” said Morgan of the goalkeeper’s last-gasp intervention to deny Andreas Cornelius and end his countrymen’s 23-game unbeaten run. “He didn’t have much to do throughout the game and you always have to stay alert for that possible opportunity. He was there at the right time to make the vital save and give us the three points and it just shows how good he is.”
After scripting one of the 21st century’s great football fairy tales, it would be only human nature if Leicester’s players asked themselves: ‘What next?’ The answer is Europe where they have showed the necessary focus to earn three clean sheets.
Midfielder Danny Drinkwater said: “We’re a strong unit and we proved tonight we can get results when we need them. We knew it would be tough, we knew we’d have to fight tonight. We had a game plan and we stuck to it, and that is what has got us the three points.”
If Schmeichel’s save was key, the other defining moment was Mahrez’s goal against the run of play – a tonic for a team in need of a lift. “It was big,” said the influential Drinkwater. “We scored at a good time, just before half-time. We battled hard and got the goal and worked on the defensive side and tried breaking when we could.”
And is another fairy tale now unfolding? “If you [offered] us this before the Champions League started we probably would have snapped your hand off,” said Drinkwater pondering his side’s nine-point haul. “We are working hard and it is happening.”