In the aftermath of Leicester’s glorious victory over Sevilla, there was a peculiar trend among English football writers to make excuses for the failure of other English teams, rather than to praise the success of Jamie Vardy & co. This may be a reluctance to jinx the Leicester fairy tale, or possibly an acceptance that it simply falls outside of the Laws of Nature, Physics, and, quite frankly, Reason.
Instead, many articles were written and barrels were scraped to explain why no other English teams had progressed. Arsenal, Manchester City, and Tottenham’s failures were blamed, in part, on the vicious English scheduling, which consistently draws ire from players and managers alike. The argument goes that a combination of two domestic cup competitions, a twenty team league and lack of a winter break leaves the English representatives exhausted when they come to face their continental rivals.
There is also a suggestion that the English game is unsuited to European football. There is no clear reason why this is the case, but a general feeling that Johnny Foreigner manages to get one over on the plucky Brit through no fault of his own. For example, the idea of a ‘European foul’, i.e. a soft foul that would never have been given in the Premier League by our proper referees. Maybe Jamie Vardy was offering a satirical exploration of this idea when he simulated being bulldozed (rather than brushed) by Samir Nasri’s head, resulting in a red card for the Frenchman. Or perhaps he just really wanted to win. Either is possible.
While few would want English teams copying Vardy’s play-acting en masse, English teams could do with taking a leaf from Leicester’s defensive textbook. They held solid after Mark Albrighton scored early, and a team currently third in La Liga were left with over an hour to fruitlessly attack Leicester’s goal. Their defensive strength secured the tie for Craig Shakespeare’s men, just as it had during their title run in last season under Claudio Ranieri.
It was a stark contrast to Manchester City’s defensive performance. While Leicester’s script is seemingly un-writable, most Sit-Com writers could easily have created City’s. Needing simply to avoid a two-goal defeat to progress, Pep Guardiola found himself 2-0 down within half an hour as his cunning plan to field five attackers in front of a shaky defence came crashing down around him. City were as hapless as Monaco were dangerous and Fernandinho was left attempting to put out a series of forest fires with a water pistol. Becoming the first side to score five in a Champions League first leg and then be eliminated speaks volumes of this current City team.
Despite impressively keeping five clean sheets in eight games in this year’s Champions League, it is not Leicester who are the favourites to lift the trophy. Before Friday’s draw, statisticians at fivethirtyeight.com named Barcelona and Bayern Munich as favourites, way out in front of the other quarter finalists. This is not surprising.
Both clubs are footballing royalty, unnervingly dominant in their domestic leagues and stuffed through with icons of the game. Of the last eight league campaigns, Barcelona have been victorious six times, and Bayern five. They are habitual winners who delight in signing their rivals’ best players in the manor of a schoolyard bully, extracting dinner money from the weaker kids.
It may seem inevitable then, that the big boys will win again. Although as Jose Mourinho sulks through the Europa League, Leicester City should take confidence from his success with Porto. Winning the Champions League in 2004 put Mourinho on the map, and showed that a well-organised, hard-working team can beat even the most illustrious of opponents. More recently, Atletico Madrid and Borussia Dortmund have upset the odds to reach the final in much the same circumstances.
“Well-organised” and “hard-working”. If Leicester’s domestic success last season and their current continental success were described, it would surely be done using these terms. Leicester certainly have a chance of continuing their success when they face Atletico in April, and in doing so they can provide a template for the rest of English football.
Whether or not the Foxes do advance to the semi-finals they have already shown that by concentrating on the basics and defending properly they can outperform any English team, first in the league, and now in Europe.