LEICESTER, England – First, the Premier League title. Now, the Champions League quarterfinals.
Is there no end to Leicester’s soccer fairytale?
The improbable rise of a previously unheralded club from central England touched new heights on Tuesday when Leicester beat Sevilla 2-0 to reach the last eight of Europe’s elite club competition, courtesy of a 3-2 aggregate victory.
Two years ago to the day, Leicester was in last place in the Premier League after a dour 0-0 home draw with Hull. On Friday, its name will be in a pot alongside the cream of the continent — Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Borussia Dortmund, Juventus and two others — in the Champions League draw in Nyon.
“We proved a lot of people wrong and pulled off the impossible again,” said Leicester captain Wes Morgan, one of the scorers inside an atmospheric King Power Stadium.
“We will take whoever comes.”
That’s the kind of uncompromising attitude that carried Leicester to the Premier League title last season at odds of 5,000-1 and is sweeping the team to another potential miracle.
No team is likely to feel comfortable in the cauldron that is the King Power Stadium on nights like these.
“Let slip the dogs of war,” urged a message on a giant banner behind one of the goals before the match. It was a line from ‘Julius Caesar,’ a play by William Shakespeare — the English playwright who has the same surname as Leicester’s new manager.
Craig Shakespeare recently took over from Claudio Ranieri, the coach who orchestrated Leicester’s sensational Premier League title triumph but was fired because the team had found itself fighting a relegation battle in its championship defense.
Shakespeare has three wins from three matches in charge, and has got the team playing back at last season’s levels.
“We tried to make it as uncomfortable as we could for Sevilla,” said Shakespeare, who was pictured on that banner holding a dog on a leash.
Sevilla — currently the third best team in Spain and winner of the last three Europa League titles — played into Leicester’s hands here, leaving space behind its defense and failing to match the home side’s intensity and energy. Its players also gave away silly fouls, one of which was conceded at the edge of their area to allow Riyad Mahrez to curl in a free kick that Morgan turned home at the back post for 1-0 in the 27th.
Winger Marc Albrighton doubled the lead in the 54th — and put Leicester clear on aggregate — by lashing home left-footed from just inside the area after Sevilla defender Adil Rami made a poor headed clearance. Seconds earlier, Sevilla left back Sergio Escudero had powered a dipping 35-meter shot against the crossbar.
Sevilla’s anger boiled over. So frustrated was French playmaker Samir Nasri that he was sent off for collecting two bookings — one for kicking out at Wilfried Ndidi in the first half and the second for aiming a headbutt at Jamie Vardy in the 74th.
Sevilla coach Jorge Sampaoli snarled and raged in his technical area throughout and was sent off to the stands late on for complaining over-zealously to officials.
Still, outplayed and out-thought, Sevilla could have taken the game to extra time when Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel brought down Vitolo in the area. Steven N’Zonzi took the penalty in the 79th but Schmeichel guessed the right way, just like he did in the first leg when he denied Joaquin Correa from the spot.
“It’s been decisive that we’ve missed two penalties,” Sampaoli said.
There were a couple of scares in the closing minutes but Leicester held on and the mix of joy and relief was palpable after the final whistle. Leicester’s players gathered in a huddle in the center circle and jumped up and down as music blared and blue-and-white flags fluttered in the stands.
Two other banners hung from the stadium roof before kick-off, one reading “Forever” and the other “Fearless.”
Leicester fears no team. Shakespeare even said that playing Europe’s top teams will suit Leicester, because of its counter-attacking approach. It is simple but highly effective.
“As a football club, we have to know our strengths,” he said. “And you saw that in abundance tonight, in terms of desire and that we can play a bit as well. It epitomized what we are all about.”