Leicester reaching the Champions League knockout phase with the minimum of fuss deserves the MAXIMUM of it


They could have switched off the electricity and Shinji Okazaki’s smile would have been enough to light up the King Power stadium for the rest of the night.

The laughter – for the European time being – is back at Leicester , last season’s land of make-believe.

From the moment Okazaki deftly but emphatically hooked home Christian Fuchs’ early invitation, everyone knew a place among Europe’s elite 16 teams was guaranteed.

It might have been a touch nervy in the end, but progression out of their group was never in serious doubt.

It is some achievement.

That they have reached the knockout stages with the minimum of fuss does not mean it should not merit the maximum of fuss.

The Premier League title holders have planted an English flag in the business district of the Champions League and until a peculiarly faltering finale to this particular contest , with no little swagger.

Domestic difficulties can remain in the pending tray for just a moment. Manager Claudio Ranieri and his team deserve a minute to savour this feat.

Just as they deserved – at the end of a vibrant evening – the sort of acclaim that has been such a familiar sound here.

No, Group G was hardly harrowing, and Bruges at first threatened to give Belgian football a bad name. But this performance – in the first half anyway – encapsulated Leicester’s campaign so far.

Professional, clinical and with a pinch of the panache that peppered their Premier League success.

That Okazaki opener was counter-attacking Leicester copyright.

Even during his non-prolific times, Jamie Vardy remains a selfless soul. He took a kick for his flick, but it freed Fuchs, the cross was cute, the finish cuter.

The attacking fluidity hinted at a return to its most threatening against the Belgians.

Riyad Mahrez enjoyed himself against less savvy adversaries and the same could be said of Marc Albrighton.

Their combination doubled the lead ahead of half-time, Albrighton wrong-footing Dion Cools and tumbling over the obliging leg, Mahrez feinting and then finishing from the spot.

It was an altogether more dynamic Leicester placed alongside some of their Premier League labours.

Which is why it was a shame when Fuchs got in a mid-pitch muddle and Jose Izquierdo sprinted hard and finished harder past a startled Ron-Robert Zieler to end Leicester’s unblemished defensive record in the competition.

It made for an anxious final half-hour, studded with defensive twitches that have characterised Leicester’s league season.

A draw would have been good enough anyhow, but their qualification – if not their efforts in the last half-hour – deserved a winning flourish.

Leicester got it thanks to some wasteful Bruges finishing and later passages of play hardly bode well for a sterner challenge in the first knockout stage.

But hey, the injured Kasper Schmeichel and the departed N’Golo Kante aside, this was pretty much the team that took a chainsaw to the Premier League’s mighty oaks last season.

They will stand a puncher’s chance against any team they draw in the round of 16.

The title defence might be proving predictably difficult, but this is a club and a team that can carry on dreaming.

And for now, carry on smiling the Shinji way.

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