So Leicester travel to Porto for the final Champions League group game with no heavier burden than their luggage. The only thing to declare as they fly out will be secure qualification to the knock-out phase as group winners.
Claudio Ranieri might even make changes for the game at the Estadio do Dragao, mindful of his side’s position in the Premier League and the proximity of the encounter against Manchester City three days later.
That approach is the preserve of seasoned European campaigners. Manchester United under Sir Alex Ferguson for example. Not Leicester, who three years ago this week were hosting Millwall in the Championship.
When the draw for the last-16 is made on December 12, Leicester will have Bayern Munich, Atletico Madrid and Paris Saint-Germain for company. The rise still gives cause to shake your head.
Their group draw has indisputably been favourable, but then that should be the reward for finishing England’s grueling 38-game programme as champions. Leicester still had to do the business and have succeeded first time where it has taken others longer.
There were a few edgy moments in the second half to make this win less smooth than it first appeared – the repercussions perhaps of consecutive domestic defeats – but victory was collected deservedly nonetheless. Moving to 13 points at the top of Group G, Leicester have in five games surpassed their Premier League total from 12. Ranieri’s next task must be to rectify that form at home but for now the Italian can enjoy this success on the continent that will be remembered no matter what happens from here on in.
Aiming to distil those magical qualities that led Leicester to the title, Ranieri went with a team as close to last season’s as could be. For the first time in Europe Shinji Okzaki, the worker-bee whose role buzzing between midfield and attack can go underappreciated, partnered Jamie Vardy up front.
At the opening whistle the pair both charged forward in a bid to win Leicester possession and from there the tone of the night was set. This was a throw-back to those closing matches of last season when silverware beckoned and Ranieri’s team gave every drop of energy to reach it.
Within five minutes, they were ahead through the kind of move that became a trademark in their pomp. Bruges had possession deep in Leicester territory but Marc Albrighton was hungrier, wrestling the ball into his control and instantly channelling ahead to Vardy.
The England striker survived being taken out by the touchline to flick on to Christian Fuchs and the Austrian advanced at pace down the left, looking up to see Okazaki moving into position in the area. His cross was ideal, Okzaki’s finish even better, a first-time hook with his left into the roof of the net at the near post.
The counter attack took just 12 seconds in total, far too blistering a pace for Bruges’ modest defenders to guard against. The Japan international wheeled away in spread-armed celebration. He has needed to be patient for his chance in the Champions League, granted only 24 minutes prior to this game due to the arrival of Islam Slimani, but here was another contribution of quality to underline his importance to Leicester.
Riyad Mahrez nearly doubled the lead three minutes later. Collecting a fine pass out wide from Andy King, the Algerian sent Laurens De Bock to the floor with one dragback, then allowed him to reach his feet only to pull the ball the other way and utterly defeat him again. Goalkeeper Ludovic Butelle got down well to block the fierce shot that followed.
Soon Leicester carved their opponents open again as Bruges appeared to have learnt nothing from their loss in Belgium. Oblivious to Leicester’s pressing, Brandon Mechele kept hold of the ball too long and Vardy nipped in behind. Fuchs delivered another cross that found Okazaki in a similar position to his goal but this time his shot was weak and straight at Butelle.
The game was effectively over in the 28th minute, when Bruges were embarrassed again. Albrighton took on Dion Cools, who was dumfounded enough by the winger’s change in direction to stick a leg out and bring him down. It was the easiest penalty call referee Ruddy Buquet is ever likely to make.
Mahrez stepped up and sent Butelle the wrong way to convert, just as he had done in the reverse fixture. The goal took his Champions League tally to four, double his total in the Premier League and somewhat undermining his denials that he has treated both competitions the same.
Three minutes before the interval Ron-Robert Zieler dived dramatically to palm wide Jose Izquierdo’s long-range shot but it was a regulation save in truth.
Seven minutes after the break, Zieler had no answer. Izquierdo outstripped Fuchs down the flank, racing at considerable speed into the area where he unleashed a shot of such venom into the top corner that Leicester’s goalkeeper could not really be faulted despite is passing his near post.
It was some goal to break Leicester’s defensive resilience in this competition after 412 minutes of action. They had outlasted all of the other 31 teams but there was to be no fifth successive clean sheet.
Vardy looked to have restored the two-goal cushion just before the hour with a delightful backheel to Fuchs’ cross but the flag was correctly raised for offside. Bruges had their own goal ruled out for the same offence shortly after and there was another nervy moment when substitute Anthony Limbombe had a fine chance but shot wildly off target.
Jeff Schlupp wasted an excellent opportunity to make the game sure when he won possession and raced through. His choice to shoot rather than lay in Vardy was proved flawed by the ensuing save.
Bruges had another goal chalked of for offside and Jelle Vossen very nearly connected to a ball that flashed across the six-yard box.
With a minute left Vardy’s header released Demarai Gray but his finish was straight at Butelle. Gray had another chance with seconds left but again Butelle was in the way.
It mattered not, the final whistle followed soon after as did the news Porto had only drawn in Copenhagen to confirm Leicester’s status as group winners. ‘We’re all going on a European tour,’ their jubilant supporters sang.