SEVILLE, Spain, Feb 21 – Under fire Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has called on his players to show the courage of “matadors” to cause a huge Champions League shock against high-flying Spaniards Sevilla during their last-16 first leg Wednesday.
A year on from winning the Premier League title against all the odds, Ranieri’s men lie just a point above the relegation zone.
However, the Italian hopes that with the pressure lifted on their return to Champions League action, Leicester can summon the spirit of last season.
“I want the gladiator, the matadors,” said Ranieri when asked if his players would be lambs to the slaughter at the daunting Sanchez Pizjuan.
“We know they are better than us, but we know we can fight.
“We have to fight with our heads held high and chests out.”
The contrast in form and European pedigree between the sides couldn’t be starker with Sevilla flying high in La Liga and having won the Europa League in each of the past three seasons.
“We are serious underdogs. If you look at what Sevilla have achieved in the past 10 years they are used to staying at the top,” added Ranieri.
However, having saved their best for the Champions League so far this season, Ranieri is hoping a famous European night can turn their campaign around.
“Tomorrow could be the turning point. If we lose nothing happens, but if we win something inside could change and we need one match like this.”
Record signing Islam Slimani hasn’t recovered from injury so Jamie Vardy is likely to start on his own up front for the visitors.
The England international’s dip in form has been a key reason to Leicester’s change in fortunes this season, but he too is hoping a relief from the pressures of the Premier League will unleash their best.
“It’s going to be a big game, we just hope we can make it a memorable one,” said Vardy.
“It is a game where we can just forget about that for one night and hopefully if we get a good performance we can use that to kick on and pull ourselves away from the relegation zone.”
Leicester’s disastrous form also saw them dumped out of the FA Cup in embarrassing fashion in a 1-0 defeat to 10-man Millwall of the third tier League One on Saturday.
However, Ranieri is set to recall a host of first team regulars after making 10 changes against Millwll as the likes of Vardy and Riyad Mahrez should return.
– ‘Time waits for no one’ –
Sevilla boss Jorge Sampaoli highlighted Vardy as Leicester’s major threat.
“Vardy was decisive last year and his lack of goals explains Leicester’s current problems,” said the Argentine.
“When Vardy starts scoring we will once again see the Leicester that are extremely dangerous.”
Sampaoli, though, admitted the pressure building on Ranieri is inevitable unless results drastically improve.
“Now no one talks about the team that won the league in an incredible and historic way, but of the present when they are not playing well and fighting against relegation,” he added.
“Common sense would say that someone who achieved so much from a team with so little can turn the situation around, but time waits for no one, not even someone as good as Ranieri who won the Premier League.”
Sevilla’s only absences are at the back with Gabriel Mercado and Nico Pareja missing through suspension and injury respectively.
Sampaoli is expected to make just two changes from the side that beat Eibar 2-0 on Saturday to remain third in La Liga, with Brazilian right-back Mariano and Spanish international Vitolo coming into the side.