LEICESTER, United Kingdom, Sep 26 – Leicester City may be unfamiliar Champions League opponents for Porto, who visit the King Power Stadium on Tuesday, but Islam Slimani is a player they know all too well.
During his three seasons with Sporting Lisbon, the Algeria striker scored six goals against Porto in six appearances, earning him the nickname ‘The Dragon Slayer’ from the Lisbon club’s fans.
Now paired up front with Jamie Vardy for Leicester, he will hope to resume his torment of the Portuguese giants as the English champions play the first home top-tier European game in their 132-year history.
Leicester broke their transfer record to sign Slimani, 28, from Sporting on transfer deadline day, paying a fee of around £28 million ($36.3 million, 32.3 million euros).
But he is every bit as rough-cut as Vardy, who joined Leicester from non-league Fleetwood Town in 2012, or his Algeria teammate Riyad Mahrez, who was signed from French second-tier side Le Havre.
Slimani was playing in the Algerian fourth division at the age of 21 and did not make the move to Europe until he was 25, joining Sporting from Algiers outfit CR Belouizdad.
A raw, rangy and technically unrefined target man, he moved to Sporting as back-up for Colombian striker Fredy Montero and was initially used as an impact substitute.
Gradually, however, he became an integral cog in the Sporting machine and by the time he left the club, he had scored 48 goals in 82 Portuguese league appearances.
He also starred in their triumphant Portuguese Cup campaign in 2014-15, scoring in normal time and a penalty shootout as Sporting overcame Braga to win their first trophy since 2008.
His time at the Estadio Jose Alvalade coincided with a power shift in Portuguese football.
Porto had won nine of the 11 league titles prior to Slimani’s arrival, but as Benfica re-emerged as Portugal’s dominant power, so their Lisbon rivals Sporting began to surpass Porto, too.
Sporting finished above Porto in two of Slimani’s three seasons at the club and he fittingly signed off with a goal in a 2-1 win over the Dragons in his final appearance before joining Leicester.
– ‘Works his socks off’ –
Slimani’s reputation as a bruiser is another reason why Porto’s centre-backs will be apprehensive about crossing swords with him again.
In an ill-tempered Portuguese Cup tie against Benfica last season, he was caught on camera lashing out at Greek midfielder Andreas Samaris.
Porto, meanwhile, accused him of liberal use of his elbows following his farewell appearance last month.
In a sarcastic Twitter post, the club shared a picture of Slimani accompanied by the caption: “They won, but were left with elbow pain due to the number of times they used them to attack our players.”
Nevertheless, Slimani’s willingness to get his hands dirty appealed to Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri, whose team’s 5,000-1 title win was built on hard graft and defensive rigorousness.
Slimani scored two headed goals — his trademark — in a 3-0 win over Burnley on his league debut, but Ranieri chose to highlight his defensive contribution.
“It’s the first time the fans have watched him and they saw how strong he is and how well he defends,” said the Italian, whose side won 3-0 at Club Brugge in their opening Group G fixture.
“He can press, press, press, all around the pitch.”
Teammate Danny Simpson said: “He works his socks off and that’s what we’re about. That’s why it’s been easy for him to slot in.”
Belying his tough-guy image, Slimani wept as he left the pitch following his final Sporting game against Porto.
But it could be Porto’s defenders who have tears in their eyes come Tuesday.