Leicester City’s Riyad Mahrez steers the ball home on the volley past Robin Olsen in the FC Copenhagen goal to give his side their third successive win in Group G. Photograph: Hannah Mckay/EPA
There may be questions to answer when it comes to their domestic form, but everything seems to fall into place for Leicester City when the Champions League anthem is played. On a night when Leicester showed the character and spirit that Claudio Ranieri had demanded, Riyad Mahrez scored the only goal of the game to register a third straight victory in the competition that moves the English champions within touching distance of the knockout stage.
Remarkably, Leicester have now accumulated more points in the Champions League than they have in the Premier League, despite playing five games fewer. Ranieri’s team sit five points clear in Group G, have yet to concede a goal and it would take an extraordinary set of results for Leicester to miss out on one of the top two positions.
Mahrez has taken to Europe’s premier club competition better than anyone in a Leicester shirt and it was a wonderful piece of skill that provided the defining moment in a tight game. A lovely flick with his heel, after being teed up by Islam Slimani, his Algerian team-mate, took Mahrez’s tally to three in the Champions League.
It was Copenhagen’s first defeat in 24 matches and that long unbeaten record would have remained in tact but for an outstanding piece of goalkeeping from Kasper Schmeichel in the 90th minute. Andreas Cornelius’s right-footed shot from 12 yards seemed to be arrowing towards the bottom corner only for Schmeichel to stretch out a hand and superbly claw the ball away.
It became clear early on that Copenhagen were not going to be fazed by the occasion in the slightest. Stale Solbakken’s side arrived here having not lost a competitive game since 22 May and their confidence showed in the way they took control of the game with their neat passing. Leicester, on the other hand, looked anxious. They were careless in possession and seemed far too dependent on the long ball over the top, which rarely came off during an opening half hour littered with mistakes.
Copenhagen, in fairness, were not making life easy for Ranieri’s players. The visitors pressed aggressively and in numbers, rattling Leicester by denying them time and space on the ball. It felt as though Leicester badly needed a goal to settle them and that breakthrough arrived at just the right time, shortly before the interval and at a point in the game when Copenhagen must have sensed that frustration was started to build among the home supporters.
From Leicester’s point of view it was the best move of the first half by a distance and one of the few moments when they showed some composure on the ball. Moving infield, Christian Fuchs found Danny Drinkwater, who shifted the ball on to Jamie Vardy, wide on the left. The England international floated an inswinging cross towards the back post, where Slimani climbed highest to head back across goal. With Mathias Jorgensen guilty of ball-watching, Mahrez darted in front of the central defender and expertly steered the ball home on the volley with a brilliant flick from just inside the six-yard box.
Mahrez and Slimani were two of four changes made to the Leicester side that lost heavily at Chelsea on Saturday. Andy King and Danny Simpson also came back into the starting XI as Ranieri looked for a reaction in a competition that he has described as “the priority at the moment”. Yet up until Mahrez’s goal, Leicester had looked disjointed and they were fortunate not to concede within minutes of taking the lead.
Set-pieces have been a problem for Leicester this season and once again their weaknesses in that area were exposed on a corner. Andreas Cornelius, who endured a miserable time at Cardiff during the 2013-14 season, when he arrived as their club-record signing and returned to Copenhagen only six months later without scoring, should have equalised in the 44th minute. The striker got away from Robert Huth far too easily but his header flashed narrowly wide of Kasper Schmeichel’s far upright.
It was not the only occasion that Leicester were stretched defensively in the first half. Schmeichel had to be alert to block Federico Santander’s close-range attempt in the opening minutes, Youssef Toutouh’s shot skimmed the roof of the net and at times an alarming alarming amount of space opened up for the Copenhagen full-backs, both of whom liked to get forward.
Leicester started the second half brighter and in search of the goal that would put the game to bed, and Mahrez, their most dangerous player, came close on the hour-mark. Gliding across the penalty area, the winger passed up the chance to play in Slimani and instead drilled a left-footed shot that Erik Johansson blocked.
With Drinkwater becoming more influential, the home team looked more dangerous going forward and Slimani was unlucky to have a goal ruled out for offside, when he dispatched Marc Albrighton’s cross at the second attempt. Television replays showed the striker was level with Peter Ankersen, the Copenhagen right-back. In the end it did not matter.