It seems like almost every year we’re treated to a Premier League versus LaLiga clash in the Champions League Round of 16. Admittedly It tends to be either Arsenal or Manchester City against Barcelona but this year threw up one of the rare ‘new’ fixtures as Leicester City, fresh after their shock Premier League victory, have been paired with Europa League conquerors Sevilla for a place in the quarter finals.
I’m sure, on both sides, they’ll be quite happy with the draw. For Leicester they avoided the likes of Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. While all those would have been ‘dream’ ties in terms of pitting yourself against the elite in world football, it would almost certainly end their Champions League involvement.
At Sevilla it was a similar feeling. They avoided Arsenal, Borussia Dortmund and Monaco plus they couldn’t be drawn against Atletico Madrid or Barcelona either. Leicester was the best option available and, in theory, it could be one of the ties of the round if the reigning Premier League champions can maintain their European form.
Over the past six months Leicester have been adopted by a lot of Spanish football fans in the wake of their surprise title win. It’s perhaps what still sets the Premier League apart from LaLiga in terms of long-term unpredictability as you couldn’t envisage, say Osasuna, upsetting the odds and walking away with the league title. There are mitigating circumstances to that of course, such as Leicester spending nearly £50m over two seasons, something a side finishing outside the top six couldn’t do in Spain.
However there’s a similarity between the two sides because Sevilla have aspirations of following Leicester’s lead and breaking the big three’s stranglehold on LaLiga. Jorge Sampaoli’s men remain in the thick of the title race and even though they aren’t considered favourites, or even second favourites, no one is going to rule them out at this stage.
What can Leicester expect from Sevilla?
The LaLiga outfit are going to want to control possession for large periods of the game. Sampaoli said when he was appointed that his first line of defence was to attack and, in his opening league game in charge of the club, they ran out 6-4 winners. The result and match gained plaudits from all around the world but for Sevilla fans it also worried them at how open the club were defensively.
Not long after that initial month or so in charge, Sampaoli decided that working on the defence wasn’t a lost cause after all and should they wish to win a major trophy this year they’d need to find a way to improve at the back. An away draw at the Juventus Stadium showed the team are capable of shutting up shop when need they need to and they actually kept five clean sheets in their six group stage matches.
For Leicester fans there’ll be one or two familiar names in the Sevilla line-up. Steven N’Zonzi has gone from Blackburn and Stoke bully to a cultured defensive midfielder in his one and a half seasons at the club. Samir Nasri is another name every Premier League fan will be aware of. Much like N’Zonzi he’s found a new lease of life at Sevilla and, even though niggling injuries continue to be a problem, he’s successfully plugged the gap Ever Banega left in the squad.
Where will the battle be lost and won?
Arguably the two best goalkeepers of the group stage will go head-to-head and, with recent form anything to go by, they’ll both need to continue playing at that level if they’re to make the next round.
While their goalkeepers are strong, the defences themselves aren’t. Sevilla have been a little more conservative in their play in Europe but will probably resort to a more natural, attacking system when they face Leicester. They’ll look to press high up the pitch, force the Foxes into making errors and pounce on them, using the pace on the flanks to exploit a relatively slow Leicester back four.
The plus for the Premier League champions is that Sevilla’s offensive approach is likely to leave gaps in their own defence, and having conceded more goals than anyone else in Spain’s top four, there is joy to be had should Leicester rediscover that counterattacking form which served them so well in the previous campaign. Nicolas Pareja and Adil Rami are unlikely to keep up with Jamie Vardy but Thimothee Kolodziejczak, who should partner one of the previous two, is no slouch himself.
Defensively Sevilla may be vulnerable but it’s hard to see Leicester keeping a clean sheet either. Only once in 15 LaLiga matches have Sevilla failed to score and that single shutout came back in August away to Villarreal. This made is even more impressive when none of the strikers signed to replaced Kevin Gameiro this summer have got going yet. Should one of them stake a claim for a place in the line-up and start scoring before February then that attack might become even more potent.
What they’re saying about Leicester in Sevilla
“I don’t think there are any easy teams when you reach this stage of the Champions League,” Fran Montes of ABC Sevilla told me. “Leicester are the Premier League champions and are enjoying a very good campaign in Europe to date.” There’s no question when it comes to respect between the two sides, although Fran does believe Sevilla have the edge. “Sampaoli will want to take the initiative and Leicester will look to exploit the space in behind when they counter. I’d say it’s 60-40 in Sevilla’s favour that they’ll advance.”
Jaime Parejo, another ABC Sevilla reporter, is less worried about Leicester due to their poor domestic form this season. “This year they aren’t performing as well as they did last year, they don’t look as solid at the back and up front they aren’t scoring as often.” There’s no question for most Sevilla fans that if the two sides met right now, their side would win, but it’s important to remember they don’t face off until February.
“In Sevilla there’s greater hope of reaching the quarter finals after a favourable draw and even more so with the possibility of reinforcements coming in during the winter transfer window.” It’ll be interesting to see what Leicester themselves do next month, with Genk's Wilfred Ndidi looking set to be their first new signing. “It should be an attractive knockout game with two different styles, one who loves to attack and the other who prefers to play on the counter.”
Club captain, Vicente Iborra, sees Leicester’s title winning story as further inspiration for Sevilla’s own hopes of LaLiga and Champions League glory this season. “We need to be realistic [about winning the league] and it’s complicated but after seeing what Leicester did, nothing is impossible.”
For Claudio Ranieri, Sevilla have been somewhat of a bogey side, having lost both games against the club during his spells managing Atletico Madrid and later Valencia. However, if he is focus on a single positive, it would be that it was in the city of Sevilla where he won the Copa del Rey with Valencia back in 1999. Can the Italian finally register a victory over his team’s Champions League rivals or will he fall to defeat yet again?