Since they confirmed their spot in this season’s Champions League, Leicester City’s bow in club football’s premier competition has been long awaited. Finally, another fairytale begins for Claudio Ranieri’s men as they make their debut in the competition away at Club Brugge’s Jan Breydelstadion.
Leicester were 5000/1 rank outsiders to win the Premier League last season, but were able to stun the bookmakers and pull off one of the greatest shocks in sporting history by winning the title in 2015/16. Although Ranieri’s side are at a much shorter 50/1 to win Europe’s premier club competition, in a group that contains Wednesday’s opponents Club Brugge, FC Porto and FC Copenhagen, Ranieri’s target will be to simply make the knockout stages, or failing that achieve the third place spot that guarantees the consolation of Europa League qualification.
“I think it’s impossible to win the Champions League,” the Italian manager told BBC Sport.
“We want to get to the knockout stages, if not we want to play in the Europa League.”
Ranieri’s response came after a confident Wes Morgan told the press at Tuesday’s news conference that Leicester were not to be written off in this year’s Champions League, particularly after last season, though he did acknowledge that the impossible is also possible in the wake of his player’s comments.
“If they take us lightly it’ll be to our advantage,” he said. “Some might look at us as a weaker team than they could have got – that wouldn’t be wise”, said the Jamaica international.
With Porto undoubtedly looking like being the hardest game, this match in Belgium will go a long way to determining Leicester’s European credentials and chances in the competition, and despite a potentially daunting away trip, it is an opportunity which Ranieri will be desperate for his team to take.
Former Belgium international goalkeeper and Brugge coach Michel Preud’homme has identified Leicester as a side that went a long way last year with the correct mindset, and that the Belgian club can take heart from that as they prepare to make their first Champions League proper appearance in over ten years. The Foxes, according to the coach, are expected to be favourites going into the contest even with home advantage.
Club Brugge have only managed a win in two of their opening six games of the season in all competitions, losing twice. They fell to another defeat on the road during the weekend in a 1-0 loss at Waasland-Beveren, Siebe Schrijvers’ solitary goal condemning them to a third consecutive away defeat.
Their slow start to the domestic campaign sees them sit tenth in the table of the Belgian Pro League, but a first Champions League group appearance since 2005 may just be the tonic needed to build a buzz back at the club and reverse their fortunes.
Defending champions Leicester have also suffered a poor start to the season, picking up four points from their opening four games in the Premier League courtesy of a 2-1 home win over Swansea and a 0-0 home draw against Arsenal. The King Power Stadium seems the bastion for Leicester at present, with four points from two home fixtures whilst picking nothing up on the road.
The opening weekend saw the Foxes slip to a surprise 2-1 defeat at Hull, whilst Ranieri’s men suffered a reality check on Saturday in a 4-1 humbling at Anfield by Liverpool. In need of a change of luck away from home, Ranieri will sense this European clash as the ideal opportunity and a win in Belgium would be not only the perfect springboard to improve their domestic form, but an ideal manner in which to start their maiden Champions League campaign.
As far as Brugge are concerned, Preud’homme has a fully fit squad at his disposal bar the missing Jelle Vossen – formerly of Genk, Middlesbrough and Burnley – Lior Refaelov, and Brazilian attacker Wesley, who has an ankle injury. Much of their creative outlet will come from Brazilian midfielder Claudemir, with former Belgium international midfielder and club captain Timmy Simons the midfield anchor in front of defence, which includes former Ajax defenders Ricardo Van Rhijn and Stefano Denswil.
Abdoulaye Diaby is expected to lead the front-line for the home side, the Malian striker has 15 league goals Brugge in 30 domestic appearances. Service from the flanks will likely come from Hans Vanaken and Colombian attacker José Izquierdo.
For Leicester, full-back Danny Simpson has made the trip to Belgium with the squad despite being withdrawn with a hamstring problem in the 4-1 defeat by Liverpool at the weekend, though it is unlikely Ranieri will risk playing the former Manchester United man, in an effort to avoid aggravating the injury and forcing him out for longer. Luis Hernandez therefore is expected to deputise at right-back.
New record signing Islam Slimani could make his club debut at the Jan Breydelstadion after his £29 million signing from Sporting Lisbon on Deadline Day, after not being included in the side that were beaten at Liverpool on Saturday, though any involvement will likely be from the bench. Jeffrey Schlupp will sit out their Champions League bow with a muscle strain, whilst Nampalys Mendy is also a doubt after his ankle injury against Arsenal on the second weekend of the season. That should mean Daniel Amartey gets a place next to Danny Drinkwater in centre-midfield.
Otherwise, Ranieri has the boost of a fully fit squad to choose from, Kasper Schmeichel is expected to feature again after making his quick comeback from a hernia operation on Saturday. Ahmed Musa is one of Leicester’s most experienced players at this level, but it is thought given his form that he will have an impact from the bench, with Mark Albrighton selected to start.
Club Brugge KV predicted starting XI Leicester City predicted starting XI
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Brugge’s only confirmed absentees are those of Vossen, then Refaelov and Wesley, who are both out with pelvis and ankle complaints respectively, the boost of a near fully fit squad a welcome one for coach Michel Preud’homme who will be looking for his side to upset the odds on Wednesday night and supplement their home form.
Leicester’s only confirmed absentee is Jeffrey Schlupp, whilst Ranieri is yet to decide whether to risk Danny Simpson after Saturday’s hamstring complaint. The game may come too soon for Papy Mendy, but he is still in contention to feature and remains only a doubt rather than a confirmed absentee.
The boost of Schmeichel’s quick recovery from surgery will be a big one for Ranieri, and he will be looking for the Dane to put in an improved display in Belgium, having been ruthlessly exposed by Sadio Mané at Anfield over the weekend.
Leicester will go into this match the favourites, despite it being their very first outing in the Champions League. Early European nerves are expected to get to the Foxes, during which the hosts will likely start on the front foot and look to take advantage.
Given Leicester’s leaky defence so far this season, with last season’s solid pair of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth on the wrong side of 30, Brugge may well take advantage given the comparative youthfulness of Diaby, but as Leicester settle they should begin to stamp their authority on the game, Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy weaving their magic whilst new-signing Islam Slimani could have a part to play.
For us, it will be a hard, battling performance from Leicester to grind out an opening 2-1 win in their Champions League bow, possibly having to come from behind to do so.
Featured Image: All Rights Reserved by Ian Johnson.