Leicester had done nothing. Nothing to worry Sevilla. Nothing to suggest they had a hope in the replay. Nothing to indicate this Champions League season was to be anything other than a pleasant diversion, a collection of souvenirs on the shelf to remind of better days.
And then the most unusual thing happened. Jamie Vardy scored. Remember when that statement did not cause surprise? Remember when he used to do it for fun? Well, briefly, it was just like old times. Demarai Gray, who made a huge impact as a second-half substitute for fish out of water Ahmed Musa, worked the ball through to Danny Drinkwater on the left, he whipped it in, and there was Vardy – all movement and poacher’s instinct, to put it beyond goalkeeper Sergio Rico.
So Leicester were back in the game, and back in the tie. Back from the dead, really. Until that moment, only Kasper Schmeichel had kept them in it, with a series of outstanding saves, including one from the penalty spot. Yet results define performance and even the most optimistic traveller would probably have shook hands on a 2-1 defeat at kick-off.
This was not just all about Sevilla’s failings in front of goal, either. There was courage here, resilience that has been sadly missing from Leicester this season.
How can a team that capitulated at Swansea, come to Seville and, in many ways, pull it off? Yes, it’s a defeat; yes, they were outplayed; yes, if Sevilla turn up at the King Power Stadium and play to their potential, it is hard to see Leicester progressing.
But they have a puncher’s chance, the supporters have an occasion to look forward to – and they are not Arsenal. They didn’t go out in the first leg. They didn’t surrender.
They didn’t give it up, as Arsenal did in Munich. Claudio Ranieri’s hope is that this spirit can now be recaptured in domestic competition – that the Champions League adds more than novelty value to Leicester’s season. We can only wish him well.
Maybe Sevilla, like so many last season, simply underestimated the opposition. In the first-half they found so many ways through, maybe they thought the second-half would be a procession. A lot of the home fans seemed to be signalling to friends with three and four fingers at half time. Score predictions? If they were, there was scant evidence to suggest they were being over optimistic. When Sevilla went two ahead after 62 minutes, the possibility of that figure doubling before the end was distinct.
Instead, Leicester found the courage to stay in contention. Gray’s introduction for the lamentable Musa made a difference; so did a smidgeon of luck. A late shot by Stevan Jovetic struck Robert Huth, sent Schmeichel the wrong way and could have ruined Leicester’s night. Instead it travelled narrowly outside a post.
With two minutes to go, a header from Sevilla centre-half Adil Rami hit the bar – but Leicester were by then on familiar ground. Those who followed their remarkable triumph last season will recall how many times they protected a lead. Protecting a slender defeat can be just as important in the Champions League.
Ranieri has been around the block enough times to appreciate that – and to turn the demands of the second leg to his advantage. In all likelihood, Sevilla will be confronted with the King Power Stadium at its liveliest since last season.
More fool them, then, for not getting the job done when they had the chance. Had they taken every opportunity – and Schmeichel been less of a rock, despite conceding his first goals in this competition – the tie could have been done by half-time.
In the opening 45 minutes, Sevilla scored, missed a penalty, and Schmeichel made five good saves, including a couple of crackers. The goal first, one that at the time appeared to typify the changing times at Leicester. Musa, a Ranieri signing and therefore his responsibility, was quite woeful, caught in possession and then slow to react and Sergio Escudero got into a strong position to cross from the left side.
He struck it sweetly and deep, but Christian Fuchs response was poor, getting under the ball and unaware of the looming presence behind. Pablo Sarabia met the cross perfectly, steering his header across Schmeichel and into the far corner. It is the sort of goal a regimented Leicester would simply not have conceded last season. Whatever became of those diligent souls?
The same question had been asked earlier when a series of calamities handed Sevilla a chance from the penalty spot. Who was to blame for Sevilla’s penalty? Form an orderly queue. Huth’s header from a right sided cross was abysmal, sending the ball a short distance back the way it came instead of into safety.
Wilfred Ndidi completely failed to get to grips with the second ball, and then when Joaquin Correa had seized on it, Wes Morgan’s challenge was ill-timed and clumsy bringing him down. Fortunately, the only thing worse than Leicester’s defending was Correa’s penalty which was struck to the left but far too near Schmeichel who claimed it gratefully.
It was in those moments that the gulf in class between the teams seemed insurmountable. Sevilla’s second goal was a case in point. Jovetic contrived to hold off both Morgan and Huth before slipping the ball on the blindside to Correa, who finished fiercely, with a flourish. The movement, the invention, it all seemed beyond Leicester’s ken.
Yet in Schmeichel they have an excellent goalkeeper and a list of his saves alone explains why his team remain in contention. Most of Sevilla’s team had reason to curse him at some stage – while Fuchs had reason to give thanks. Such was his sloppiness with a stooping mop-up header back towards his own goal, that Schmeichel’s first good save was from his full-back.
More conventional acts followed, saves from Correa, Jovetic, Correa, Correa again – not even Donald Trump has this much trouble with Correa – plus moments of good fortune, including an effort from Vitolo that hit the near post.
Even the most one-eyed Leicester follower will have known his team got away with it, and there was lovely self-deprecation in the chorus of ‘We scored a goal’ that floated through the night air as they left the stadium. Yet they did, Vardy’s first in the Champions League no less, and that means they have to be respected in the second leg. Yes, Sevilla are the better side and this should serve as a warning about complacency. But what odds would you give on a Leicester shock? Not 5,000-1, that’s for sure. We are only too familiar with the ability of this group to confound all expectation: not to mention the experts’ finest logic.