There was something a little eerie about Kasper Schmeichel’s penalty save towards the end of Leicester City’s uproarious Champions League defeat of Sevilla. Mainly it was the element of real-time deja vu about the whole thing. Not just because Schmeichel had also kept out a penalty from Joaquín Correa in Seville. This was a save that seemed oddly inevitable from the moment the kick was awarded, to be already happening even as Steven Nzonzi frowned and placed the ball on the spot, Schmeichel bobbing on his toes and doing that funny little Bruce Lee-style beckoning gesture with his fingers.
Schmeichel knew what was about to happen. Nzonzi definitely knew: his kick was terrible, a flaccid, scuffed thing lacking any menace, spite or basic human will to live. It almost bounced twice before it got to Schmeichel, who had to wait before grabbing it, the only danger that he might be deceived by the lack of pace, like a batsman playing too early at a slower ball.
Nzonzi has never scored a penalty in his career. He may not take another. Although he will, you imagine, get to see this one again in those moments after he closes his eyes and starts to drift off to sleep. In the stands Leicester’s supporters celebrated with a sense of gathering triumph. In the press seats harassed, sweating newspaper hacks began to batter away with sudden conviction at their early-edition copy. From that point it was clear Leicester were going to win this tie on the details.
The most obvious of which is that in Schmeichel they have a goalkeeper who has proved beyond any doubt, a decade into a picaresque career – the Falkirk years, that Darlington adolescence – that these high-pressure moments really do lift his game.
Even the most talented sportspeople can fade into the action at the highest levels. Others are able to find that rare space beyond the nuts and bolts of actual talent (which is, as they say, overrated) where victory becomes an act of spirit and champion will.
Schmeichel has made fewer saves per game in Leicester’s Champions league run than he has in the Premier League. Against Sevilla on Tuesday he made three all night, each a key moment in isolation. Very good goalkeepers will tell you this is the sign of a very good goalkeeper. Afterwards Craig Shakespeare, who knows Schmeichel well, was asked if there was a better keeper in Europe. “Possibly not,” Leicester’s manager replied without missing a beat.
Comparing top-class goalies has always been one of the more fruitless aspects of football’s urge to rank and list. Beyond a certain threshold so much depends on form and luck and the players in front of you. Plus, of course, there are some very good goalkeepers around the place these days, the position itself energised by the trend for keepers who can drive the game from the back, from Hugo Lloris’s sweeper-keeper schtick to the comedic regista-manqué stylings of Claudio Bravo.
Schmeichel’s brilliance across both legs of the Champions League last-16 stage confirms his own rise, aged 30, to the elite goalkeeping caste. No doubt further rumours of a move from Leicester – Barcelona and Real Madrid have been mentioned, a little fancifully, in the past – will mushroom in time.
Signing Schmeichel would instantly improve at least four of the current top seven. Peter Schmeichel, his father, was once such a huge Liverpool fan he told the club he would pay his own travel costs from Denmark if they offered him a trial (Graeme Souness turned him down: he already had David James). Liverpool also seems the most likely destination for Schmeichel Jr should he become available, and indeed an excellent fit.
If such man-of-the-moment recognition has been quite a long time coming, Schmeichel has also impressed wherever he has been on his 10-year meander through the divisions. Another oddity of Schmeichel v Nzonzi is that in a bizarre parallel world they might even have been England team-mates had the Football Association’s overtures towards both men been successful.
Schmeichel was sounded out as a possible England player as long ago as 2007, the same year he made a Premier League debut in Sven-Goran Eriksson’s Manchester City team. Joe Hart’s emergence stopped his progress and two years later Schmeichel moved on to Notts County, where he had the grace and generosity to tear up his own contract when the club hit the buffers.
There is a sense of the world turning his way in recent years. Goalkeeping itself has changed a little. Schmeichel is hardly a titch at 6ft 2in. But the one real doubt in his younger days was the idea he might fail to “dominate his area”, to provide a genuinely imposing old-school physical presence.
Ten years on from his City debut the best keepers tend to be mobile, integrated into the defensive back line, agile rather than imposing.
Schmeichel is the same height as Marc-André ter Stegen, taller then Bravo, and just two inches off Manuel Neuer. If he doesn’t quite have the eye-popping ball skills of Neuer or Ter Stegen his distribution is at least decisive and precise. Stats suggest Schmeichel has the longest kick of any goalkeeper in the Champions League. His ability to launch hard, flat accurate passes 60 yards downfield is key to the way Leicester play when they play the way Leicester ought to play, all deep defence and fast breaks.
This is the other side of Schmeichel’s wonderful performance against Sevilla. There will be a temptation to announce that none of the other teams left in the Champions League will want to play Leicester City now. In fact the opposite is true. All of the other teams left in the Champions league will want to play Leicester City. Show me a plucky underdog: I’ll show you an underdog.
On the other hand, if Sevilla’s possession-heavy impotence at the King Power tells us anything it is that Leicester’s style may just be a good fit with the remaining Champions League teams. Most of the European grandees left tend to commit players forward as a matter of seigneurial right. Deep defence, an excellent goalkeeper and swift accurate forward passes are the best response. More of the same from Schmeichel, Leicester’s best player in Europe this year, and they may just have a chance of bloodying another nose along the way.