Leicester hold off Brugge to clinch Champions League Group G
LEICESTER, England -- Three thoughts from Leicester's 2-1 win over Club Brugge in the Champions League.
1. Leicester hang on to win Group G
Leicester continue to live their Champions League dream. Beating Club Brugge 2-1 confirmed a place in February's knockout rounds, and as group winners. An exemplary total of 13 points from five games, though, carries a touch of embarrassment to it. England's champions have collected just 12 from 12 Premier League matches this season, and are now more than skirting the relegation battle. European football has provided sweet sanctuary from what has been a desperately poor title defence.
And this was an assignment completed far more shakily than it should have been. Leicester were ahead in the fifth minute, and two goals clear by 30 minutes but were forced to hang on grimly, as previously poor opposition were given chance to improve by a nervy second half from the home team.
For Leicester's first, Marc Albrighton robbed Jelle Vossen on the edge of his own penalty area, found Christian Fuchs on the overlap, and the Austrian's cross, hit more in hope than expectation, was thrashed in by Shinji Okazaki. It was the brand of breakaway which conquered English football last season and Leicester, hitherto a little tentative, surged with adrenaline.
What surely added to their confidence at that point was the inadequacy of their opponents. Club Brugge had lost each of their previous four group matches, and the reasons for that were explicit in the risible quality of their defending. Both Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez peeled out wide to take advantage of Dion Cools and Laurens De Bock, two full-backs left exposed despite the Belgians often having all 10 outfield players in their own half.
Cools did not live up to his surname when lumbering wildly into Albrighton to concede a 30th minute penalty. Mahrez -- far more coolly -- stepped up to send Ludovic Butelle the wrong way and Leicester seemed already in cruise control, their fans dreaming of the European destinations the knockout rounds may take them.
The reverie would be pricked by an excellent solo 53rd minute goal from Jose Izquierdo. Dispossessing Fuchs in his own half, the Colombian striker sprinted towards Leicester's goal and roofed his tight angled shot. Ron-Robert Zieler in Leicester's goal was given no time to set himself. Izquierdo, with far too much speed for Fuchs, was the greatest danger to Leicester's passage to the last 16.
Captain Timmy Simons, 40 next month, pulled the strings for Brugge as Leicester retreated dangerously into their shell as Claudio Ranieri withdrew Mahrez and Albrighton in seeking to flood midfield. There were some heart-stopping moments as pressure was piled on as Leicester's shakiness at set-pieces in the Premier League was repeated. Survival and progress, though, eventually came.
2. Mahrez, Vardy still lacking spark
Mahrez's penalty made it four goals in five Champions League games, doubling his total of strikes from 12 Premier League matches. Only one of that six has come from open play, the close-range finish that proved the difference last month in a 1-0 defeat of FC Copenhagen.
There were moments here when he had the chance to express himself. He certainly had the beating of either Brugge full-back when the mood took him. Yet still he was quiet, though not nearly as quiet as Vardy.
The England striker, and latterly bestselling author, is still willing to make lung-bursting runs down the channels, but the snap of spring 2016 is missing in winter. The goal he scored last week for his country in a 2-2 draw with Spain ended a drought of 14 matches, but he last scored for Leicester on Sep. 10. He did have the ball in the net in the 59th minute, but the linesman's offside flag was received with grim acceptance.
Both of last season's shining stars were outshone by the outstanding contribution of Albrighton. The left winger is not much of a flair player, but his ability to hit early crosses caused Brugge great discomfort, as did a work ethic that Mahrez never came close to emulating.
3. Back to reality for Leicester
Claudio Ranieri's troubles in integrating the summer's signings were shown by his starting team being made up of 10 champion players from last season. Only Zieler of the new brood was playing, and only because of Kasper Schmeichel's broken hand; the great Dane had been Leicester's best player in Europe, making two last-minute saves to take four points from FC Copenhagen and keep his team on course.
Even the bench was short on fresh blood. Luis Hernandez, Ahmed Musa and Daniel Amartey have each failed to make Ranieri's strongest team while the injured Islam Slimani is yet to strike up much of a partnership with the likes of Vardy or his Algerian teammate Mahrez. The former Sporting striker has been a little too static, and especially so when compared to Okazaki's perpetual motion.
Now that the European novelty has been put to bed until February, save for next month's trip to Porto, it is last season's players that Ranieri will have to rely on to pull Leicester back up the table. The next two domestic fixtures are Middlesbrough at home and Sunderland away and, the other side of Porto, Leicester welcome Manchester City and travel to Bournemouth and Stoke. There are 12 very gettable points within those five matches, but Leicester need to reignite a Premier League spark to claim them.
And perhaps also hope that such opponents play as badly as Brugge did in the first half.
John Brewin is a staff writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @JohnBrewinESPN.