“Slimani is not a player we can ignore,” Porto manager Nuno Espirito Santo had admitted on Monday. “He is a striker, a goalscorer, and we must control him.”
Porto fans have long grown to loathe the Algerian hitman in a very short space of time. He hasn’t earned his ‘Dragon Slayer’ mantle for nothing – six goals in eight previous tussles against the Portuguese giants for Sporting did that – so in winning this game for Leicester Slimani added No.7 to the pile. It was the sixth of 2016 alone.
Must control him? Try as they might, Porto couldn’t. Nuno had also been quick to point out before kick-off that it wasn’t all about Leicester’s new €30m man – and he was proved right. The trouble was, his plan for Porto to control the ball was thwarted from around 10 minutes in when things got physical and his team ran out of ideas. A late surge in he final 15 minutes wasn't enough.
At the other end Leicester’s other pair of diamonds twinkled. Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy were firmly on Porto’s radar before kick-off, but sometimes there’s little than can be done to stop them in full flow. When Mahrez chopped inside to curl in his elegant cross for Slimani 25 minutes in, the outcome was obvious. The Algerian couldn’t miss.
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Vardy, too, horrified Porto centre-back Felipe with his pace – surely Leicester’s greatest commodity in this, their first-ever Champions League season – and his poor opponent was prematurely treading a tightrope after being booked for hauling down the England striker after 21 minutes.
Room for one more
But while Mahrez and Vardy were Claudio Ranieri’s devastating double act in 2015/16, Slimani’s arrival to form what has become a new love triangle is perhaps what they need to keep themselves dining at the top table and take their previously rather one-dimensional attack to a new level.
If Vardy is the top scorer in England, then with the right coach Slimani would score double the number of goals as him
It seems like an odd statement given what Leicester achieved last season, but to even get close to managing it a second time this year would have been even more improbable. Not only have their own circumstances changed, but those of their more illustrious Premier League rivals have even more so for the better. The Foxes needed to wise up.
Simani might not fit the profile of unearthed gem like so many of Leicester’s 2015/16 heroes do, but his backstory is no less interesting – don’t forget he was still playing in Algeria’s third division at the age of 21, and didn’t play for Algeria until he was 24. He arrived in the East Midlands last month a considerably more polished player than he was even just a year ago at Sporting, let alone when he packed his bags for Portugal from his home nation in 2013.
In his first two seasons the goals dripped, if not flowed: 20 league strikes in total, up 12 in his second season from eight in his first. His manager, however, knew there was more to come. Jorge Jesus, the Portuguese mastermind famous for improving on potential, predicted a strong second half of the season back in September 2015 – but that was just three matches into the campaign. Slimani delivered sooner, scoring on his next appearance against Rio Ave and bothering goalkeepers across Portugal until the season’s end. He finished with 27 goals in 33 league games, putting him second in the scoring charts, seven ahead of the man in third.
It wasn’t just his goals that had impressed, though: Slimani’s all-round aerial prowess had become beastly, his technical advances proven swift under Jesus, and Sporting’s biggest matches had become his ideal hunting ground (in the league he scored against Porto four times, Benfica once and Braga twice).
“If Vardy is the top scorer in England,” said Jesus on co-commentary during Portugal’s pre-Euro 2016 friendly against England, “then with the right coach Slimani would score double the number of goals as him.”
The new guy
Maybe that claim isn’t so bold this year – but in reality, only because the 28-year-old Slimani is taking some of the goalscoring burden off his new team-mate’s shoulders. The Algerian’s decisive goal in this game goal nudged his Leicester tally one above Vardy for the current campaign – but the real story is how well their relationship is already blossoming.
From early on against Porto the duo’s deadly cocktail of pace, hard graft and brutish strength had 2004’s winners on the back foot and their stoppers staring at shirt numbers. There were already signs of it on Slimani’s debut against Burnley when two more headers made up his debut brace, but it seems fair to suggest there’ll be even more to come in the Premier League where physicality isn’t punished with a shrill shriek every time a ball is airborne. Referees might be clamping down on close in-box encounters back home, but they don’t like the taste of tin quite like their European counterparts.
Slimani may have felt like something of a luxury signing given Leicester’s relative attacking riches, but in reality he’s the perfect addition from a school of hard knocks both Vardy and Mahrez are familiar with, having also been educated far down football’s various pyramids free from the shackles of academy life.
Most pleasingly for Claudio Ranieri, that aforementioned love triangle is more like a mutual threesome, having already spawned two of Slimani’s three goals so far. For the Algerian’s second against Burnley, Mahrez’s cross was backheeled into his compatriot’s path by Vardy. For this third Foxes goal, Mahrez was again the provider.
Slimani’s arrival in Leicester potentially makes his new team uglier – this game was certainly not one for the purists – but then it was that first-half physicality which ultimately unsettled Porto enough to win the match.
It’s another sentence for Leicester fans to drink in. Two wins from two in their debut Champions League campaign, earned by their new attacking triplet. Three, it seems, is not a crowd after all.