LEICESTER, England — Three thoughts from Leicester’s 2-0 victory over Sevilla at the King Power Stadium, which sees the reigning Premier League champions advance to the quarterfinals of the Champions League 3-2 on aggregate.
1. Leicester stun Sevilla to reach last eight
Leicester City are heroes again after a night that surely makes their season’s toils seem worthwhile. A Champions League quarterfinal spot is theirs, and while it may have taken some twisted logic to predict that when this tie was drawn, the Foxes defied it thrillingly in front of a home crowd who must have thought they had already seen everything.
A scrappy effort from Wes Morgan in the first half and a sweet drive from Marc Albrighton in the second made history for Leicester here, and that only told part of the story. Keeper Kasper Schmeichel’s penalty save from Steven N’Zonzi — 10 minutes from time and moments after Samir Nasri had been sent off — was his second of this round-of-16 tie and proved the decisive moment as Leicester confounded expectations once more.
Sevilla could, in fact, have dulled the mood within four minutes of the start. It took a sharp save from Schmeichel, repelling Nasri’s shot at his near post, to stop the visitors from edging further ahead in the tie. Pablo Sarabia cut a 20-yard effort wide as Sevilla, despite a predictably high-tempo approach from Leicester, created the better early openings.
Yet Leicester made their first one count. When Riyad Mahrez delivered a free kick to the far post from the left corner of the box it was Morgan, beating the weak challenge of Gabriel Mercado, who bundled the ball home with his right thigh. Now it was game on; Sevilla had to score to keep the hosts from progressing.
They briefly threatened to do so in the aftermath of Morgan’s goal but Leicester, aware that an hour camping in their own area was a nonstarter, wrested a degree of territorial initiative and held out until the break in relative comfort.
The visitors needed something different and it was little surprise to see Jorge Sampaoli introduce Mariano Ferreira and Steven Jovetic for the second half. In the 53rd minute they came within inches of equalising when Sergio Escudero, taking aim 30 yards out, thudded the underside of the bar with Wissam Ben Yedder volleying the rebound wastefully over.
It was a key moment. Within two minutes Albrighton, lashing past a static Sergio Rico after a Mahrez cross had been poorly cleared by Adil Rami, put Leicester ahead in the tie for the first time.
Sevilla pressed, but when Nasri — who had already been booked — pushed his head into that of Jamie Vardy after an altercation between the pair and was rightly dismissed, it seemed as if Sevilla had folded. Schmeichel’s penalty-saving heroics, which came four minutes later after he had fouled Vitolo, were the final twist.
“We are the champions,” sang the crowd as the clock wound down and, for the first time in some while, you believed them.
2. Vardy, Leicester set resounding tempo
Leicester’s players set about their task as if, for many of them, it might be their last chance to make a mark on the Champions League. In many cases that was not an unfair thought and the hunger they showed was epitomized by an inspirational performance from Vardy, who tore into Sevilla from the start and set the tone for a night that will live in the club’s history forever.
“Let slip the dogs of war,” read a tifo display held up by the Leicester supporters as their team entered the pitch, referencing a line from the William Shakespeare play “Julius Caesar.” The playwright’s namesake, Craig Shakespeare, was depicted on the banner restraining a snarling hound, and the Leicester manager — in his first game since his tenure until the end of the season was confirmed — sent his team out baying for blood.
This was the Leicester of old and it was no coincidence that Shakespeare, for the third consecutive match, had selected the same side — with the exception of Wilfred Ndidi — that formed the bedrock of their title-winning campaign. Vardy, looking like the player who terrorized defences last season, was irrepressible and had already shaken Nicolas Pareja with a shuddering challenge when, running in from the left and going down under Vicente Iborra’s tackle, he won the free kick that created Morgan’s opener.
Vardy worked the channels tirelessly, sometimes with scant support, and pounced on errors such as a piece of loose control by N’Zonzi shortly before the break that allowed him to get a shot away. The familiar hint of nastiness and appetite to play on the edge were evident throughout and epitomized by the encounter that saw Nasri dismissed. Vardy had clearly provoked the Sevilla midfielder, shoving him in the back and exchanging words, but proved the cleverer of the two.
It summed up Leicester’s performance: harder, faster, sharper and ultimately that little bit nastier. Old habits came to the fore in a way that nobody will forget.
3. Sevilla self-destruct, throw tie away
How did Sevilla manage to throw this tie away? The chances they missed during a first leg they completely dominated were critical and helped Leicester garner genuine belief for the return, but their failure to close things out here owed more to a lack of aggression where it counted.
N’Zonzi’s penalty miss — their second of the tie — will be viewed as the defining moment, but they will equally look back on two moments of sloppy defending here. Mercado was nowhere near strong enough when faced with Morgan’s jump and then Rami, usually the dominant member of their back line, should surely have done better than head to the edge of the penalty area, in a central position, to the lurking Albrighton.
Despite putting Leicester under spells of intense second-half pressure, during which Joaquin Correa was thwarted by Schmeichel and crosses were flung into the Leicester box, they seemed rattled by the home team’s physicality and Nasri’s first yellow card, awarded in the 18th minute after a needless slash at the legs of Ndidi, had given an early hint that they might have a soft underbelly.
For all of their probing and possession, moments of genuine incision were rare and Leicester’s centre-backs were able to deal with the majority of their incursions comfortably. It is a sobering night for Sampaoli, who was sent to the stands after protesting against Nasri’s dismissal, and one that he could not have envisaged at 2-0 up in the first leg. If the manner of Leicester’s victory was stunning, then the way in which Sevilla squandered their chance of reaching the last eight was, across the two ties, equally remarkable.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.