Spot-on Mahrez saves his neck as Foxes coast

Leicester's Jamie Vardy falls after being tackled by Club Brugge goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle, resulting in a penalty. Riyad Mahrez netted for his second goal in the Champions League opener as the English champions ran out 3-0 winners.
Leicester's Jamie Vardy falls after being tackled by Club Brugge goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle, resulting in a penalty. Riyad Mahrez netted for his second goal in the Champions League opener as the English champions ran out 3-0 winners.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

BRUGES (Belgium) • The only worrying moment in an otherwise composed Champions League debut for Leicester City on Wednesday came when Riyad Mahrez stepped forward to take the penalty kick awarded in the 61st minute.

The Algerian winger had missed a spot kick against Swansea City last month and two last season. But the tension was deeper because manager Claudio Ranieri had threatened to break his player's neck if he missed one more time, having spurned three of his previous four penalties.

The Italian revealed after the match that he had wanted Islam Slimani, his new £29 million (S$52.4 million) signing, to become the penalty taker, but that Mahrez had insisted he be given another chance.

"If he hadn't scored I'd take his neck and crush his neck," the 64-year-old tactician said. "He took the responsibility. I tried to say Slimani because he's a penalty scorer. But he took the responsibility and scored. He was a lucky man!"

Mahrez was better than lucky. He was, on Wednesday, back to his influential best as Leicester beat Club Brugge 3-0 in Belgium.

The Premier League champions opened their scoring through Marc Albrighton on five minutes, before Mahrez curled in a free kick just before the half-hour mark and converted the penalty following a foul by goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle on Jamie Vardy.

"Maybe the music woke him (Mahrez) up. Maybe he is very tired of 'dilly-ding, dilly-dong' and prefers the Champions League music," Ranieri said, in reference to his famous catchphrase.

With one utterance, the manager turned Leicester's European journey upside down.

While all the preamble had been about the club's lack of experience - this was their first European match in 16 years - it was really a chance for the team and their star players to shake off the hangover of the delights of winning the title and start to sparkle properly once more.

Wary of the hype and and the dangers of being overawed, Ranieri revealed he told his players to use the iconic anthem played before every Champions League game to their advantage.

"I said to the players when you hear the Champions League music," he said, "it charges the battery and makes you fight."

Leicester are now top of Group G, after the 1-1 draw between Porto and Copenhagen in Portugal, and favourites to progress to the knockout phase, but Ranieri is determined to follow the template of last season when he refused to accept glory was possible even when it looked highly probable.

His target, he said, is to stay in Europe and even if Leicester slip into the Europa League, it would still be considered a success.

THE TIMES, LONDON, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 16, 2016, with the headline 'Spot-on Mahrez saves his neck as Foxes coast'. Print Edition | Subscribe