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Five Aside

Leicester City's focus on UCL over Premier League should be lauded

Claudio Ranieri reflects on Leicester's Champions League success and Premier League struggles.

There's something glorious about Claudio Ranieri's attitude to the Champions League. It's old fashioned, outdated and possibly a little reckless, but it's also refreshing, endearing and something to be saluted. He's not simply happy to be there nor is he concerned about the effect it will have on Leicester City's form in defence of their Premier League crown. He's in it to win it. And with nine points in the bag and not a single goal conceded, who is to say that he won't?

The Foxes' 1-0 victory over FC Copenhagen on Tuesday night means that they now have one more Champions League point than they have in the Premier League this season. And Ranieri has made no attempt to disguise his priorities.

Last weekend, Islam Slimani and Riyad Mahrez were left out of the team that lost 3-0 away at Chelsea. The pair returned to the team for the midweek European action and combined to score the crucial winning goal. Ranieri, never a manager scared of making big decisions, has been vindicated. One more victory from their remaining three games will ensure that they play Champions League knockout football in 2017, but it may not even take that given they are five points clear with three games to play.

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Whatever happens now, Leicester are virtually guaranteed to finish at least third in the group and a place in the Europa League knockout phase. But that's not what Ranieri wants. He wants much more than that.

It's all very a different ethos from Brendan Rodgers' approach in 2014 with Liverpool. Having narrowly beaten Ludogorets in their first group game, Liverpool's inconsistent league form became increasingly concerning. The second and third group game were both lost, to Basel and Real Madrid respectively, and by the time the fourth game (Real Madrid away) came around, Rodgers was ready to make a significant sacrifice.

The team that took to the pitch in Spain included such luminaries as Lazar Markovic and Fabio Borini. Steven Gerrard, Raheem Sterling and Jordan Henderson all sat on the bench and watched Liverpool lose 1-0. And it was all for nothing. Four days later, they went on to lose to Chelsea, then Crystal Palace, in the league before eventually sinking to the bottom of their Champions League group after two more disappointing draws.

And yet Rodgers, from a pragmatic, objective and entirely joyless perspective, was absolutely right to rest his players for that game at the Bernabeu. We all know how it works: Champions League football means money and prestige. With money and prestige, you can attract and remunerate better players, while retaining the ones you already have. Once that lucrative group stage football has been confirmed, it's arguably more important to qualify for next season's Champions League than it is to actually win it.

You want good new players in the summer; you don't want your heroes to leave. It's awful, it's sickening, it's anti-sport, but hey, that's modern football. Rodgers was just trying to play the long game.

And that's why Ranieri's childish enthusiasm strikes such a chord. He's not remotely concerned by balance sheets. He doesn't care that a mid-table finish would be the signal for an exodus of players from the King Power Stadium. He is only concerned with right now. And right now, Leicester can win the Champions League.

You may laugh, but it's a cup competition. Even the two-legged cup competitions aren't always won by the best team. Look at Chelsea in 2012. Look at Liverpool in 2005. Two flawed English sides lifting the trophy at the end of seasons in which neither of them finished in the top four in their domestic league. Look at Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund, rousing themselves from depressions to swiftly come within a game of lifting the biggest club prize. Leicester won the Premier League by 10 clear points and in a universe that allows that to happen, can you really be certain about anything?

It is still very unlikely, of course. Recent history suggests that one of the great houses of Europe, Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich, will prevail. Leicester have many problems that won't simply go away when the Champions League music plays. They have their moments, there is still a fantastic atmosphere at the King Power Stadium, and when goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel makes the sort of save he produced in the last moments of Tuesday's clash to preserve the win, you remember that they didn't win the league in a raffle. There are good players here. But things have changed.

With that big shiny Premier League trophy in their cabinet, no-one is stupid enough to take Leicester lightly anymore. With their strengths and weaknesses so well known, and no discernible new gameplan, they're not going to take anyone by surprise. Without N'Golo Kante, their midfield is too easily over-run. Without the momentum that built up over the first half of 2016, they're no longer as irrepressible.

But doesn't that just makes Ranieri's thinking even more admirable? The Premier League is behind them. Bring on the next challenge. And long may his adventures continue.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.


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