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Champions League newcomer Leicester clinched its place in the knockout stages as guaranteed group winner by beating Club Brugge 2-1, with early goals by Shinji Okazaki and Riyad Mahrez doing the damage on Tuesday.
Okazaki steered the English champions ahead in the fifth minute before Mahrez converted a 30th-minute penalty after fellow winger Marc Albrighton was upended.
Leicester conceded for the first time in Group G when Jose Izquierdo fired home a rising shot in the 52nd, but was still able to celebrate qualification with a game to spare. Claudio Ranieri’s team has 13 points, from four wins and a draw, and leads second-placed FC Porto by five points ahead of their meeting in Portugal in the final round of group games.
“It is more than we could ever imagine,” Leicester captain Wes Morgan said. “For Leicester to be newcomers and finish group winners, it is an amazing achievement.”
Finishing top should give the Foxes an easier last-16 match – against a team that finishes second in its group – and therefore a better chance of extending its debut campaign in the Champions League to the quarterfinals.
“We’re on another journey,” Ranieri said. “I don’t know where, but we’re excited.”
The closest Leicester got to a European trip in recent years was crossing the Welsh border to play Swansea in the Premier League. Now they’ll be mixing it with the elite of the continent in the latter stages of the world’s most prestigious club competition.
It’s a giddy rise for a team that wasn’t even in England’s top flight as recently as May 2014.
Leicester might be struggling in the Premier League this season, lying two points above the relegation zone after 12 games of a stuttering title defense, but these atmospheric European nights at King Power Stadium are more than making up for it. Ranieri’s side has more Champions League wins (4) than Premier League wins (3) this season.
“Maybe we have been more concentrated on the Champions League,” Ranieri said. “Now the group is won, important to come back in the Premier League.”
Brugge, bottom of the group with one goal and no points heading into the game, was no match early on for a vibrant home side that dominated right from the start and went in front through a clever finish from Okazaki.
Albrighton began the counterattack and Christian Fuchs continued it by racing down the left wing. The Austria defender crossed low for Okazaki to meet with a sidefooted shot at the near post.
Mahrez was given the opportunity to double the lead from the spot after Albrighton twisted and turned Dion Cools before being tripped by the right back. Mahrez’s penalty was low and sent the goalkeeper the wrong way.
Izquierdo’s goal, which came when he was set free down the right wing and outpaced Fuchs, lifted Brugge, and Leicester endured some shaky moments in the final 30 minutes when its passing and marking became sloppy.
But when the final whistle was blown, there was an explosion of joy as Leicester’s fans chanted: “We’re all going on a European tour.”
Ranieri has now reached the Champions League with five different teams. Only Carlo Ancelotti (six teams) has done so more.