Football: Test of Leicester's rising stock

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The Independent Online
Martin O'Neill has played down the achievements of his Leicester team but if they eliminate Juninho and friends tonight in the Uefa Cup that may have to change. Phil Shaw assesses their chances.

These are hectic, heady days for Leicester City. Next month they will float on the Stock Exchange. Tonight it is a case of sink or swim against Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their first-round Uefa Cup tie.

The flotation announced yesterday is expected to bring pounds 12m into the club, improving at a stroke Martin O'Neill's power to improve a side already third in the Premiership. But the business that will have Filbert Street heaving with anticipation is of the unfinished variety, namely Leicester's prospects of overturning Atletico's 2-1 lead.

O'Neill took as high praise the verdicts of George Graham and Danny Wilson, managers of Leeds and Barnsley respectively, who labelled them "hard to beat". Yet against Atletico's pounds 50m line-up, work-rate and organisation will take Leicester's pounds 8m band only so far. They need to win, without conceding a goal if possible, a balancing act that will make unprecedented demands on them.

Pontus Kamark, part of an IFK Gothenburg team which beat Barcelona and Manchester United, is a Euro-veteran in the Leicester context and is again set to shadow Juninho. However, when Atletico's coach, Raddy Antic, assesses the players who could damage them, the names of Emile Heskey and Matt Elliott are more likely to be to the fore.

Heskey, still only 19, emerged with credit from a rugged introduction to continental defending in Madrid. According to O'Neill, renewed exposure to methods which range from the cynical to the stylish can only further his education.

"Playing against the top Europeans is an experience that lives with you," the Leicester manager said. "I'd played for Northern Ireland before John Robertson (his assistant) played for Scotland and I used to tell him: `You'll find it difficult'. He said: `Not at all', but when he'd played a few games he told me I was right.''

As for Elliott, who leads Leicester in the absence of the injured Steve Walsh, his penchant for precious goals is the proverbial bonus. Although reluctant to tell Glenn Hoddle or Craig Brown (Elliott has a deceased Scottish granny) their jobs, O'Neill doubted whether there were more than four better centre-backs in the Premiership.

The match is replete, therefore, with the potential for enhancing and embarrassing reputations. O'Neill habitually plays down Leicester's rising stock, but conceded that their cover would be blown if Juninho and company were sent packing.