It’s finally here. Our first Champions League knockout match since 2010. Leicester City, the Champions of the English Premier League, who breezed through the easiest group of the Group Stage, is visiting the Sanchez Pizjuan today. They’ve been kind of a disaster recently, both in the league and in the domestic cups.
Despite only really losing NGolo Kante over the summer, Leicester brought in a few big money signings in Islam Slimani, Ahmed Musa (who would have been a fantastic fit here IMO), and Wilfred Ndidi to reinforce their squad depth and try to maintain their position as a club who can at least compete for another European spot and at worst finish in the top half of the table. That hasn’t happened. They’ve been bounced out of both domestic cups and somehow slipped into a very tight relegation battle. Losing Mahrez, Slimani and Daniel Amartey for over a month to the African Cup of Nations certainly didn’t help.
But it seems like everyone on this team is out of form. Mahrez hasn’t been able to consistently produce the moments of magic he did last season. Vardy hasn’t been able to create or finish the chances that made him a nightmare to centerbacks last season. Huth and Morgan have returned back to earth, and Danny Drinkwater has not looked the same without Kante next to him.
For Leicester, both Islam Slimani and Leonardo Ulloa are doubts to be fit today. Expect Kasper Schmeichel in goal and the usual backline of Simpson, Huth, Morgan and Fuchs. Central midfield will include Drinkwater and Ndidi, and maybe Daniel Amartey too depending how defensive Leicester wants to play. Mahrez will be on one wing, with either Albrighton or Demarai Gray on the other. The forwards will be some combination of Vardy, Musa and Shinji Okazaki.
For Sevilla, the squad is Rico, Soria, Mariano, Carrico, Lenglet, Rami, Escudero, Kranevitter, Iborra, Nzonzi, Nasri, Vitolo, Sarabia, Mudo, Correa, Ben Yedder, Vietto, and Jovetic. Obviously, the biggest omission from that list is Nico Pareja, especially given how disastrous our passing out of the back has been over the last few matches. That said, the CB pairing of Rami and Lenglet has managed to keep 3 straight clean sheets. As I see it, there’s only really two spots that are up for grabs. Rico will start in goal, with Mariano, Rami, Lenglet and Escudero along the back line. Nasri and Nzonzi will start in the middle, with Vitolo on one side and Jovetic as one of the strikers. That leaves two spots for Sarabia, Mudo, Ben Yedder and Iborra. Given that Iborra seems to be Sampaoli’s favored first sub, my guess is we see Mudo and Sarabia, with Ben Yedder’s recent dip in form pushing him to the bench.
This is a huge opportunity. We cannot afford to overlook Leicester. And we really have to be wary of runs into the channels and in behind. That has been an issue for us most of the season, and Leicester is so proficient at exploiting that weakness that they won a league title last year doing it. They will give us as much possession as we want, but we really cannot afford the stupid giveaways out of the back that we’ve been doing the last couple weeks.