STATS: Thiago leads list of most successful final third passes in UCL

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Thiago Alcantara

While Arsenal were humiliated by Bayern Munich over the two legs of their Champions League last-16 tie, Thiago Alcantara produced an outstanding display for the German giants.

Thiago scored two crucial goals in the first leg at the Allianz Arena, giving Arsene Wenger’s side no chance to come back ahead of the return leg in London.

And according to this stat by WhoScored.com, Thiago (183) has made the most successful passes in the final third in the Champions League season so far.

Among the others on the list are Atletico Madrid’s Koke (171), followed by Barcelona magician Lionel Messi (163), Sevilla’s trio of Steven N’Zonzi (161), Samir Nasri (144) and Vitolo (138), along with Thiago’s team-mate David Alaba(144).

No wonder there are rumours about a potential move to the Nou Camp for the Spaniard…

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COMMENT: Vardy’s crafty gamesmanship just the same as Suarez

Andy West 15/03/2017
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Jamie Vardy reacts after Samir Nasri's headbutt.

Barcelona’s dramatic comeback in the Champions League against Paris Saint-Germain last week certainly sparked some strong emotions among those who didn’t want them to win, with the Catalan team heavily accused of ugly gamesmanship.

The main target of the anger was Luis Suarez for his theatrical tumble to win the penalty which made the score 5-1 on the night, but the Uruguayan striker was by no means the only man in the spotlight as Barca were generally accused of cheating their way into the last eight.

Fast forward a week, and many of the same people who lambasted Barcelona are now effusive in their admiration of the heroic exploits of plucky little Leicester, whose brave and wholehearted performance against Sevilla on Tuesday night saw their inspirational fairytale continue as they marched into the quarter-finals of the Champions League.

This is the same Leicester whose centre forward and in many ways emblematic player, Jamie Vardy, cynically manufactured the dismissal of an opponent by – in a manner not too dissimilar to Luis Suarez a week previously – heavily exaggerating contact.

Sure, Vardy didn’t actually throw himself to the ground when he tamely butted heads with the foolishly immature Samir Nasri as they bickered on the edge of Leicester’s box.

But, having provoked the handbags at dawn argument in the first place, he then dramatically threw his head backwards and stumbled a few steps, just to make sure that referee Daniele Orsato saw exactly what had happened.

And it wasn’t only that incident because Vardy – as he generally does – spent much of the evening looking for fouls, gesturing wildly to Orsato for free-kicks to be awarded and reacting angrily when they were denied.

You could say: fair enough. Leicester are so dangerous from set-pieces that attempting to win them is a legitimate tactic. Indeed, the crucial opening goal from Wes Morgan came from a free-kick won by a (genuine) foul on Vardy.

Or you could say, as so many people did about Suarez last week, that Vardy’s theatrics are ruining the sport, that he should be retrospectively punished and that Leicester are a bunch of cheats.
Because if you say that about Barcelona but don’t say it about the Foxes, it’s sheer hypocrisy.

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Can Leicester win the Champions League?

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The impossible *recurrent* dream?

It’s safe to say that Leicester City are no strangers to the impossible. In fact, given their hugely disappointing Premier League title defence this season, they’re probably inviting the distraction.

After raising the bar for themselves and falling woefully short, they’re now in a position to overachieve again.

The Foxes are in a relegation dogfight and are hardly the favourites to emerge from it in one piece but they’ll accept that the odds are against them and try to defy them anyway.

Meanwhile, they have their sights on another fairytale ending this season, this time in Europe.

Leicester beat Sevilla 2-0 at the Liberty Stadium on Tuesday night to win 3-2 on aggregate and, against all odds, progress to the quarter-finals of the prestigious tournament.

Whether or not they could actually go all the way is an intriguing question. And here are a few points that suggest, with a whole lot of good fortune, they just might be capable.

BACK TO BASICS

Claudio Ranieri’s dismissal in January was greeted with shock and a fair bit of resentment given the manager’s incredible accomplishment last season. However, since Craig Shakespeare has taken charge, the team has reverted to type and it’s worked wonders for them.

Everyone suggested that Ranieri couldn’t possibly maintain a winning formula this season by sticking to his tried and tested line-up and system. But new names like Ahmed Musa and Islam Slimani haven’t made much of an impact.

Shakespeare has gone back to the title-winning XI, apart from N’Golo Kante of course, and they’ve started to look more like their old selves, relying heavily on the counter-attack. Indeed against Sevilla, they only had 29% of possession but broke swiftly and registered more shots than the visitors (13 to 11).

PRECEDENT

FC Porto making the finals in the 2004 edition of the competition was as big a shock as any but they perhaps did get the rub of the green in terms of fixtures in the knockout stages. More pertinent to Leicester’s situation is Chelsea’s triumph in 2012.

Following Andre Villas-Boas’ dismissal, Roberto Di Matteo led an average Chelsea side to European glory, beating Napoli, Benfica and the mighty Barcelona on their way to the final where they upset Bayern Munich.

Chelsea had then adopted a counter-attacking strategy out of necessity than anything else but Leicester are a team well-versed in playing the underdogs and pouncing on opportunities on the break.

RIGHT UP THEIR ALLEY

To put it quite simply, prospect of Leicester winning the Champions League this season is ludicrous. Fortunately for them, that’s right up their alley.

They’ve almost seemed unsettled by their ‘champions’ tag in the Premier League this season, longing instead for their status as a band of spirited misfits, which they have apparently recouped of late.

With their backs against the wall and naysayers doubting them at every turn, this is where Leicester are in their element. Given the events of last season, what Leicester also possess is belief. Bold, irrational and ultimately invigorating belief.

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