Champions League: Valiant Leicester City lacked the refinement to overcome robust Atletico Madrid
Leicester City were relentless in their onslaught, but perhaps they lacked that bit of avant-garde play, that bit of refinement to breach Madrid
For almost two seasons Leicester City have been assaulting and battering all the prevailing dogmas and cliches of the game, first under the amiable Claudio Ranieri in the Premier League, then under regeneration boss Craig Shakespeare in the Champions League, so could the Foxes, who had prowled on, surprise one last time to reach the last four of the European Cup?
With a 1-0 deficit from the first leg and little chance of winning, let alone of progressing, Leicester faced another customized and impossible proposition in Atletico Madrid at home: the ultimate underdog versus the hardened Spaniards, who eliminated Barcelona twice in the past three years and reached the final last season.
The stands of the KingPower stadium, a little cauldron in the north of England, were a swirl of glitter, blue, silver and gold flags. They fluttered in the breeze, welcoming the last European interlopers with a raucous army of fans demanding a final Homeric act from their players.
Amid the hysteria and the pumping adrenaline Atletico coach Diego Simeone proffered what he always does: a sound game plan. He paired Gabi with Jose Gimenez in the axis of the field, moving Saul to the left. Up top, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco, the dainty Belgian, played alongside Antoine Griezmann. The new midfield pairing made Madrid even more robust.
The Argentinean’s tactics were spot on: the Foxes didn’t find space in the final third, Riyad Mahrez was too peripheral and the long ball to Jamie Vardy was snuffed out all too easily. In the first leg the English champions had failed to register a shot on target with Vardy isolated, drifting in a no-man’s-land. Leicester’s first incursion deep into Spanish territory arrived after 22 minutes but Shinji Okazaki ballooned the ball high over the bar.
Each minor slip from the Madrid players elicited touchline histrionics from the high-energy, swash-buckling Simone, whose black tie attire befitted a badly attended gothic funeral. Once Saul opened the scoring in the 26th minute with a neat header across the face of goal, Madrid never looked like relinquishing the tie.
This was the Madrid machine playing and toying, scheming and thwarting, and domineering. It was familiar and facile, in spite of any of Leicester’s epic and Herculean qualities. Was this to be an understated end of Leicester’s European Cup dream, without a last lunge for glory?
Towards the end of the first half, Atletico moved the ball around with ease and even a sense of entitlement - with the arrogance of a giant trampling a nosediving minnow. They reduced a Champions League quarter-final to a droll training match. In possession, Atletico demonstrated radiant simplicity in their passing and a complete mastery of the ball. They showed many fine attributes of their game with gushing aplomb.
Not that it lasted: after the interval Atletico reverted to type. They sat deep, stonewalled and tried, with verve, to suck the life out of Leicester in another protracted suffocating act. It was again a shrewd and streetwise Atletico, consummate in their game, and yet nervy in the second half, perhaps camping too deep, even by their standards.
Shakespeare’s half-time substitutes perturbed Atletico. He became the latest Premier League manager to experiment with a three-man defense, with Leonardo Ulloa and Ben Chilwell replacing Yohan Benalouane and Okazaki in a 3-4-3 formation. The tall striker unsettled Simeone’s rearguard. Vardy forced an equalizer, and with it, the fans began to bay for encores. The stadium was bouncing. The visitors looked rattled and Leicester rejuvenated - the reverie and romance of conquering another Spanish scalp was on. Savic prevented a second Vardy goal with a great intervention as the striker aimed for the top right corner.
The Foxes were relentless in their onslaught, but perhaps they lacked that bit of avant-garde play, that bit of refinement to breach Madrid. They fought valiantly, but were ultimately overcome by a better team. As the European dream faded - Kasper Schmeichel came up for the last corner kick of the game, Godin cleared allowing Griezmann to have an audacious longrange attempt - there was however a celebratory mood around Leicester, a rambunctious appreciation of what had been and of what football can be.
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