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Leicester need to be heroes for more than just a summer

It was always a risk to ask Andrea Bocelli to sing Time to Say Goodbye at Leicester City\'s Premier League victory party.

Published: 14th September 2016 08:45 AM  |   Last Updated: 14th September 2016 08:45 AM   |  A+A-

Danny Drinkwater-AP

Arsenal's Francis Coquelin, left, and Leicester City's Daniel Drinkwater battle for the ball during their English Premier League soccer match at the King Power Stadium, Leicester, England, Saturday, Aug. 20, 2016. | AP

It was always a risk to ask Andrea Bocelli to sing Time to Say Goodbye at Leicester City's Premier League victory party. In the moment of their rise, the realists said, was the hour of their fall. It would be goodbye to a magnificent team, to days in the sun, to the sense we all had that the old order was overturned.

Three things would happen. Leicester's best players would want to leave and those who stayed would demand more money. Plus, in the big English cities, the monolith clubs would be taking steps to ensure this could never happen again. The plutocrat owners of Manchester United, Manchester City and Chelsea might force a smile for Leicester's win at 5,000-1, but then they would crush them.

The oldest truism in sport is that reaching the top requires different skills to staying there. A team's self-image changes; intensity can drop, if only by fractions; the animating dream of shocking the world and being cheered from Alaska to Australia is no longer there. The world has had its shock, and wants its revenge, and now each player must look inside himself to decide whether he can push himself to the edge again.

But if the Leicester story was less romance than one-night stand, help is on its way, in Europe, where 1,400 Foxes fans will converge on the beautiful city of Bruges, and Claudio Ranieri's men will hear a Champions League signature tune most of them know only from television.

With that anthem, and a look around the ground, Leicester's players will be able to see why they worked so hard to win the English championship. A bigger salary was a reward. All those parties were a reward. But they were not the end of it. The ticket the Premier League title bought them was admission to club football's finest tournament, with its official stamp of esteem.

To be discombobulated by overnight fame is no disgrace. Leicester are not Manchester United, for whom winning the title is a professional duty. No laurels are allowed in the training grounds of the biggest and best-run clubs. So Leicester were in need of a different incentive to keep at bay the fear that the big names would smash them back down to eighth or 10th in the Premier League table.

The Champions League lifts them out of domestic bliss and places them in a new world, where the prize for finishing in the top four spots at home glitters and motivates afresh. At 29, Jamie Vardy, has not played a single Uefa/European club fixture in his career. Nor has Danny Drinkwater, who also missed out on Euro 2016 (lucky him, as it turned out). Wes Morgan, too, is a virgin on the continent. Only six of Leicester's squad have experience of Champions League action.

Yet here they all are, in Group G, with Club Brugge, Porto and Copenhagen. If this fails to fire the imagination of Ranieri's team then nothing will. Spare a thought, though, as they listen to Uefa's musical lift from Zadok the Priest, for all they have been through since they returned us to the days of Nottingham Forest and Derby County - to a time when provincial towns and cities could compete with London and Manchester.

In this bracket must fall Arsenal's pursuit of Vardy, Riyad Mahrez's mixed messages about staying, and above all the loss of their clairvoyant holding midfielder, N'Golo Kante, to Chelsea.

When Liverpool were lacerating Leicester at the weekend, it was tempting to take a doom-laden view of a 4-1 defeat that followed an opening-day reverse at Hull, a 0-0 draw with Arsenal and a win over Swansea.

For a start, Drinkwater was noticeably less vigilant, and Leicester's commanding centre-backs, who played the game in front of themselves all last season, found themselves running back towards their own goal, and being sliced apart by Liverpool's darting attacks.

Part of the beauty of watching Leicester last season was that they were a perfectly balanced winning machine, with each part complementing the other, and each player fulfilling a specific role with no let-up.

To lose Kante from that mix has been painful. He was the one who stopped the opposition and then started Leicester's next forward move, unless it was Drinkwater hitting a perfect golf shot for Vardy to run on to, or Mahrez or Marc Albrighton spearing into the opposing full-backs. That brilliant automation is going to be harder to achieve this time round, but would work just as well in Europe, where direct play is also now less unfashionable.

So, we should hang on to what Leicester mean - what they gave us - for a bit longer, and not divert our gaze from them, as if they are just yesterday's plucky heroes, returned to unglamorous toil.

Leicester have spent only four of their 132 seasons in Europe, and have not fallen under Uefa's jurisdiction for 16 years. Their record on the continent, across 132 years, is won two, drawn two, lost four. The two victories were against Northern Ireland's Glenavon in the 1961-62 European Cup Winners' Cup.

They really have wandered in from the wastelands of European football, which is all the more reason to hope tonight will re-focus attention on what Leicester accomplished less than five months ago, and why hello and goodbye were not merged into a single, wonderful experience.

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