With Shakespeare at reins, Leicester writes stunning Champions League chapter
On a night of extraordinary drama at King Power Stadium, Leicester City beat Sevilla 2-0 to come from behind and progress to the last eight of the Champions League by a 3-2 aggregate. Wes Morgan and Marc Albrighton scored the goals in a game that also saw Samir Nasri sent off and Steven Nzoni denied from the penalty spot by Kasper Schmiechel.
In far less tumultuous fashion, Juventus confirmed its place in the quarterfinal with a 1-0 victory over Porto to win 3-0 on aggregate. Maxi Pereira was sent off five minutes before halftime for conceding a penalty that Paulo Dybala converted, and Juventus saw things out from there.
Here are three thoughts on a half-stunning, half-straightforward day in the Champions League:
Shakespeare writes an astonishing script
The Leicester fairy tale keeps on finding new chapters. As comebacks go, perhaps it fades beside Barcelona’s last week, but the fact remains that Leicester City came from 2-0 down in the round of 16 to beat Sevilla and to progress to the quarterfinals of the Champions League on the first occasion it has ever played in the competition.
Jamie Vardy’s away goal in Sevilla may not have been enough to save Claudio Ranieri, who was dismissed the following day, but it had a crucial bearing on the series.
Craig Shakespeare, who was named as Leicester’s manager until the end of the season this week, became just the third Englishman to take charge of a side in a Champions League knockout tie. It was presumably in his honor that Leicester fans before kickoff unveiled a huge banner urging their side to “let slip the dogs of war.” That, of course, is a line from Julius Caesar, a play about a Roman leader who was stabbed in the back, which in the circumstances seemed a little insensitive–particularly given that by the time the game kicked off, it was already the Ides of March in Thailand, where Leicester’s owners are based.
This was the Leicester of the past two games, which looks a lot more like the Leicester of last season than the one of the first six months of this season. Schmeichel made a fine early save from Nasri, beating away a fierce shot at his near post with a strong left hand, but it gradually became apparent that Leicester was winning second balls and beginning to assert itself.
And in the 27th minute came the opener. Riyad Mahrez curled in a free kick from the left that eluded everybody, dipping to strike Wes Morgan, coming in at the back post, on the thigh, from where the ball squirted over the line. That made Morgan the first Jamaican to score in the Champions League, and, more importantly, gave Leicester the lead thanks to its away goal in the first leg.
That meant Leicester could play its natural game, sit back and look to strike on the break. Sergio Escudero hit the bar with a vicious, dipping long-range effort, but two minutes later, Leicester had a second. Mahrez’s cross was half-blocked but fell kindly for Marc Albrighton, who finished calmly.
Sevilla applied pressure after that, and Schmeichel made a good save from Joaquin Correa, but the game took a further shift in Leicester’s favor with 16 minutes remaining as Nasri, already booked for a nasty foul on Wilfred Ndidi, squared up to Vardy. The two thrust heads together, Vardy perhaps overreacted, and both were yellow carded, meaning Nasri was off.
But the drama was far from over. Schmeichel clattered into Vitolo as he lifted the ball over him. Although Robert Huth hacked clear, the penalty awarded was clear enough. Sevilla, though, had missed its last three penalties and Nzonzi made it four in a row, his weak effort easily saved by Schmeichel, who had made a save from Correa's spot kick in the first leg.
The final minutes were fractious and tense but Leicester held out for a win that will be remembered just as fondly as any individual game in its history.
There are many reasons for the Leicester revival since the departure of Ranieri, most of them psychological, but among the most significant has been the signing in January of Ndidi from Racing Genk. The Nigerian is not N’Golo Kante (who was in attendance Tuesday a day after sending Chelsea to the FA Cup semifinals) and it would be unfair to expect him to be, but he does offer a sense of security at the back of midfield that Leicester has lacked.
That has two knock-on effects. Most obviously, it liberates his midfield partner Danny Drinkwater, whose link-up with Vardy was so key last season. But it also means that Huth and Morgan are less likely to be isolated by runners, which had been a problem earlier in the season: commanding as they are in the air, they can be exposed by quick or deft forwards.
Another early red signals end for Porto
Ill-discipline may not have been the major difference between Juventus and Porto, but it was what ultimately wound up determining the winner. After Alex Telles was sent off for two rash challenges within 90 seconds in the first half of the first leg, Juventus gratefully capitalized with two second-half goals. Another first-half red card ended any slim chance Porto may have had of getting back into the game and helped punch Juve's quarterfinal ticket.
This time it was far less egregious, but Maxi Pereira spread himself and clearly blocked Gonzalo Higuain’s goal-bound effort with his arm. He was shown the red card, and Dybala tucked away the ensuing penalty.