No keeper has been more important to their team’s chances in the Champions League than the Denmark No.1 has been for Leicester
The Champions League must have been a distant dream for Kasper Schmeichel when he was playing for Bury, Falkirk and Notts County earlier in his career. He had the name but not the credentials. How he’s grown. How Leicester have grown.
The Leicester miracle goes on
It takes a lot to stand out in this company but Schmeichel – during his first-ever season at this level – is arguably the best goalkeeper in the Champions League.
That says a lot considering Manuel Neuer and Gianluigi Buffon are still in the mix but Schmeichel has been more integral to his team’s chances than either of those two has for Bayern Munich and Juventus.
Leicester are fighting strong among the last eight teams after a two-legged win over Sevilla, with the son of the Manchester United legend standing tall every step of the way.
Is there a better goalkeeper in Europe? “Possibly not,” said manager Craig Shakespeare. “We knew the importance of him from the first leg but the importance was there tonight for everyone to see.”
There has been a death and a rebirth in Leicester’s season – navigating their way from fallen champions to this spring rehabilitation – but chief among the reasons for their continued presence in the Champions League is the form of the Danish No. 1.
Results have spoken for themselves but a closer look at their games reveals the importance of Schmeichel in dragging an underperforming team through to the quarter-finals.
‘Leciester are the team to avoid’
Without him there would be no nights like this on which they celebrated beating the team who have won the last three Europa League titles available.
Without him there would probably have been elimination in the group stage as Claudio Ranieri’s game plans repeatedly exposed what had been a rock-solid defensive unit.
He didn’t concede a goal through the group stages and went 385 minutes in total without his line being breached. He’d been the hero in the home tie against Porto – as well as home and away against Copenhagen. He pulled off save after save – even with a broken hand – and led by example as his title-winning team-mates struggled to get back up to speed.
He saved a penalty in either leg against Sevilla, making amends for fouling Vitolo here in the first place, and repelled the Spaniards at key times over and over again in the first meeting.
There is no question that Jorge Sampaoli’s team dominated both games in terms of possession and, certainly, at the Sanchez Pizjuan they had the biggest number of clear-cut chances. He made great stops from Sergio Escudero and Joaquin Correa in particular and gave Jamie Vardy the platform to score a meaningful away goal.
Goalscorer Morgan makes history
He was back at it at the King Power, denying Samir Nasri in the third minute and demonstrating the type of fortitude required for Leicester to go through. Without an away goal, Sevilla were doomed from the moment Wes Morgan bundled in the strike that gave the Foxes the advantage.
From there Leicester played their opponents expertly; funnelling them out wide and either blocking the crosses or heading away the remainder.
Schmeichel is a keeper that inspires confidence. It has taken him some time to grow into the gloves of his father but is looking every bit as commanding for Leicester as Peter did for Manchester United. There is a trend these days to disregard goalkeepers who aren’t able to pass it to the standard of outfield colleagues but not so at Leicester. What they have is a shot-stopper first and foremost and a last line of defence who is not afraid to clear his lines when the situation depends on it. He has a league title and a place in the Champions League quarter-finals to show for it.
Schmeichel was just a boy when his dad won the Champions League in Barcelona against Bayern Munich 18 years ago. He admitted earlier on this season that match will always ensure this competition has a special place in his heart. His father was here watching as his son continued on the path towards matching his achievements, as Leicester wrote a new history.
Along the corridors of the King Power Stadium there is a framed photograph of Ronaldinho, taken some years ago here during a friendly match against Barcelona. You’d imagine it was hung at the time to give the club a veneer of prestige; a self-conscious attempt at making it seem they belonged in company.
What has happened here over the last year or so means it’s time to get some new pictures up. Maybe one of Kasper Schmeichel saving a penalty to ensure they qualify for the quarter-final of the Champions League.