Leicester City face moment of truth in Champions League clash in Sevilla
Leicester City go into Wednesday night's game in the last 16 of the Uefa Champions League as champions of England. But it is just a title. The defence of a crown so gloriously won has been abject.
City's swashbuckling heroes of 2015-2016 have been emasculated. After 25 of their 38 games, Claudio Ranieri's men hover near the relegation zone - the place predicted for them at the start of their all conquering season.
The rag tag band of brothers who confounded modern mores appear to have reverted to type. Without a radical reappropriation of their alter egos, they face life in the second tier of English football.
"I want the gladiator, the matadors," said Ranieri as his squad prepared for the first leg of their clash against high flying Sevilla at the Sanchez Pizjuan stadium.
"We know they are better than us, but we know we can fight," said the 65-year-old Italian. "We have to fight with our heads held high and chests out."
The contrast between the sides in domestic form and European pedigree is salient. Sevilla are third in the Spanish top flight, three points behind pacesetters Real Madrid. They have won the Europa League in each of the past three seasons.
"We are serious underdogs," added Ranieri. "If you look at what Sevilla have achieved in the past 10 years they are used to staying at the top."
But in their first Uefa Champions League campaign, City reached the knockout stages after coming top of their group. And Ranieri says a positive result and performance in Spain could unleash the brio of yesteryear.
"It could be the turning point," he suggested. "If we lose, nothing happens. But if we win something inside could change and we need one match like this."
Record signing Islam Slimani has not recovered from injury and Jamie Vardy is likely to start on his own up front for the visitors.
The England international's dip in form has been a key reason to City's change in fortunes this season.
"It's going to be a big game, we just hope we can make it a memorable one," said Vardy. "It is a game where we can just forget about our results in England for one night and hopefully if we get a good performance we can use that to kick on and pull ourselves away from the relegation zone."
Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli singled out Vardy as Leicester's main threat. "Vardy was decisive last year and his lack of goals explains the current problems," said the Argentine.
"When Vardy starts scoring we will once again see the Leicester that are extremely dangerous."
Vardy was not part of the team that lost to Millwall last weekend in the last 16 of the FA Cup.
Another poor result on Wednesday would increase the pressure building on Ranieri who steered City to their first top flight title in more than 130 years of existence.
"Now no one talks about the team that won the league in an incredible and historic way," said Sampaoli. " People only talk of the present when they are not playing well and fighting against relegation.
"Common sense would say that someone who achieved so much from a team with so little can turn the situation around. But time waits for no one, not even someone as good as Ranieri who won the Premier League."
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