Why Leicester City's Champions League Debut Should Be Different To English Failures Of The Past


They haven’t exactly enjoyed the best start to their Premier League title defence but, buoyed by the very fact they are champions, Leicester City still have a lot of optimism about how they can finish the season. Everyone from the club that was asked on the eve of their first ever Champions League game away to Brugge was repeating the same hopeful message, most notably manager Claudio Ranieri.

“I say it is impossible,” the Italian stated of the prospect of lifting the grand old trophy, “but Leicester have shown the impossible is possible.”

Were they to pull it off, of course, it would make complete the comparisons with Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest. In order to even begin to make that “fairytale” - as Ranieri also put it - come true, however, they’re going have to learn from the more mundane lessons of all the clubs that have followed Forest. Leicester are the 10th English club to appear in the new Champions League since it finally introduced a group stage as its opening round in 1994-95. Many of them of course competed in - and won - the old European, but the key was the transformed nature of the event.

This is the key with Leicester now too. They’re going to have to see what worked and what didn’t in adapting to this new reality of a very different type of competition. As Ranieri admitted, “we need to make [European] experience”.

 

The initial experiences of those previous nine were very mixed.

While Leeds United got to the semi-finals in their Champions League debut back in 2000-01, and Chelsea 1999-2000, Liverpool 2001-02 and Tottenham Hotspur 2010-11 reached the quarter-finals, the majority - five of them - were eliminated in the group stage. Everton are the only one of the nine to have failed to even reach the competition proper, but that after getting eliminated in the preliminaries following a hugely difficult draw against Villarreal.

The temptation is naturally to write off the poorer results as being down to English clubs’ drawn-out readjustment to European football after the Heysel ban, as well as the foreign-player limitations, but it’s not quite that simple.

The last debutants? Manchester City 2011-12. And their finish? A group-stage exit.

That campaign was admittedly conditioned by much more than adapting to the Champions League. There was also the fact City had such low seeding, giving them a hugely difficult group of Bayern Munich, Napoli and Villarreal.

The changes to the format mean Leicester have not been pegged by that disadvantage. They’ve been afforded a higher seeding, and thereby an easier group: Porto, Brugge and Copenhagen. It does raise the question of what would be an acceptable performance this season, even for a debut season.

Do the same elements and questions apply? Is the adjustment to European football as deep as it used to be, given the globalisation and modern diversity of the Premier League now?

It certainly doesn’t provoke the obsession in Ranieri it did in Arsene Wenger and - especially - Alex Ferguson during their early days in the competition. The English league just has too much tactical variation, too many players from abroad. There’s just so much more nous, to the point that isn’t even relevant any more. All jokes aside, Ranieri obviously doesn’t have to instruct his players to dive in the box in the way Jaap Stam claimed Ferguson did.

It is telling, in fact, that the Italian barely brought up the differences in European football other than mentioning the need to acquire experience.

It is all skewed, meanwhile, by the fact Leicester themselves play such distinctive football even for the Premier League. One of the primary factors in their title success was their unique tactical approach, and how they so efficiently stripped down counter-attacking football to its most brutally effective basics.

Although the sale of N’Golo Kante has diminished that approach - and especially exposed the defence - it would have been interesting to see how the biggest Champions League sides adapted to Leicester, but that is just one other way their debut campaign does feel different. It is quite a forgiving group, even for a top seed. Porto should be the only real challenge for first place and, while Brugge will be awkward, Leicester should have enough to finish in the top two at the very least.

That should be probable, rather than possible.

 

That might be when it really begins.