FC Copenhagen’s fans had come to Leicester for a good time, not a long time. When they weren’t busy lighting up their corner of the King Power Stadium with flares, they ran through a relentless repertoire of songs in both Danish and English. With great delight, they teased their hosts: “You’re not famous any more.”
That might have been stretching the truth, just a little. Four defeats in eight Premier League matches have all but doused Leicester’s dreams of extending domestic dominance through a second season, but the Premier League title the Foxes won in 2015-16 will not be forgotten any time soon.
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What the chant did do was highlight a truth that few Leicester fans might have anticipated as they prepared for a first-ever run at the Champions League. An underdog in at home, Leicester finds itself cast as the wealthy front-runner in the group stage of Europe’s premier club competition. A club with Leicester’s financial resources should expect to swat aside one of Copenhagen’s modest wealth.
The most expensive signing on the Danish club’s books, Andrea Cornelius, cost a little less than £3 million in 2014. And even that, in effect, was a false figure – since Copenhagen was only signing him back from Cardiff, the club he was sold to for around £8 million a year previously.
Leicester, hardly the Premier League’s biggest spender, was able to invest more than £25 million on Islam Slimani this summer. The gulf between that financial reality and those of Tuesday’s modest opponent was obvious.
Not that you would have known it from the way this game began. What Copenhagen had in its favour before kickoff was a little bit of that magic that Leicester tasted last year – the confidence that builds when you start to stack one win on top of another.
Since the start of this season, the Danes had gone 21 games without defeat in all competitions. That run included a 4-0 victory over Club Brugges and a 1-1 draw away to Porto in Champions League Group G.
Following the lead of impressive captain Thomas Delaney, Copenhagen quickly took control of the play in midfield. With half an hour gone, the visiting side had enjoyed more than 62 percent of possession. But what Stale Solbakken’s side forgot, perhaps, is that this is exactly how Leicester was used to playing last season.
Striking out on the counter, Leicester enjoyed the game’s better chances even before Riyad Mahrez scored in the 40th minute. His would turn out to be the only goal of the game, and must have felt like vindication to Claudio Ranieri. The manager had rested both Mahrez and Slimani, who provided the assist, for Leicester’s Premier League defeat to Chelsea on Saturday.
And yet this game would have finished in a draw if it were not for one stunning save from Leicester’s own Copenhagen-born goalkeeper. Exactly one week before this fixture, Kasper Schmeichel had been playing for Denmark alongside several of these opponents, including Delaney, Peter Ankersen and Mathias Jorgensen.
Those three, and also Cornelius. The striker told Ekstra Bladet in the run-up to this game that he had warned Schmeichel whilst together on international duty that he intended to score against him here.
For all Copenhagen’s possession, Cornelius had barely had a sniff of goal up until the 90th minute. But it is another habit of successful teams to always carry on believing – regardless of what is happening in a match – that you will have your chance sooner or later.
Copenhagen’s arrived in injury time, Federico Santander powering his way down the left and cutting the ball back low and hard towards the middle of the box. Cornelius arrived a fraction too soon, but adjusted his body superbly to arrow a low shot towards the bottom corner. Only breathtaking reflexes from Schmeichel allowed the keeper to get down and push it away.
Now it was the turn of Leicester’s fans to crow. “Denmark’s number one,” they sang, and then “Champions of England, we know who we are.”
The cynics will shrug and point out, again, that Leicester is supposed to win a game like this. But here’s a reality that you might not have picked up on: Leicester is now the first English club ever to win its opening three games of a Champions League campaign. And Ranieri’s men did it without conceding a single goal.
That might not be enough to make Leicester “famous,” like the title win did. But for a club enjoying its first ever run at this competition, this is certainly not a bad place to start.