For Leicester City it was a long, gruelling night but they did at least emerge with a glimmer of hope. They have been here before, needing to overturn a first‑leg deficit against a team that has given them a chasing, and on the last occasion against Sevilla it did not end too badly. Now, once again, they will need to show all that competitive courage for another feat of escapology.
England’s last representatives in this competition could not manage a single shot on target throughout the evening and it was difficult, indeed, to think of any noteworthy efforts whatsoever. Atlético’s possession reached a high of 80% at one point. All the game’s statistics pointed to the fact that Leicester were second-best. Yet the most important detail is that Atlético, for all their superiority, were restricted to only one goal, to their intense frustration.
It sets up a delicately poised return leg on Tuesday when Leicester, losing here to a 28th-minute penalty from Antoine Griezmann, will need to summon all the qualities that helped them see off Sevilla in the last round. The difference this time is that they do not have an away goal and, defensively, they will have to make do without Robert Huth because of his second-half booking. Huth is now suspended because of the totting-up process and that threatens to be a considerable blow when Craig Shakespeare admitted it was “touch and go” whether Wes Morgan’s back injury will have cleared up in time.
To put it in context, if Atlético score one, Leicester will need three – and that does not happen often against the team from Estadio Vicente Calderón. Las Palmas managed it in the Copa del Rey. Real Madrid did the same in La Liga, Villarreal too but nobody else and these factors, combined with Atlético’s expertise at knockout football, mean Leicester will resume their underdog status. That, of course, is the way they like it.
They can, however, reflect on a relatively satisfying night’s work even if they will surely have to operate with more adventure on their own ground. Yohan Benalouane, deputising for Morgan, played as though affronted by the suggestion he might be a weak link and it was another night to show the renewed sense of togetherness now that Leicester, post-Ranieri, are back on an upward curve.
They also left the pitch at the end with a smouldering sense of injustice because of their complaints that Griezmann, the night’s outstanding performer, had been marginally outside the area when Marc Albrighton raced into the challenge that left the Swedish referee, Jonas Eriksson, pointing to the penalty spot. Griezmann’s momentum meant he landed well inside the perimeter line, which was perhaps his strategy, but the replays confirmed Leicester had a legitimate case to feel aggrieved.
Their complaints should not mask the fact these were the moments when Leicester’s inexperience at this level was highlighted. Atlético, in comparison, must rank as one of Europe’s more streetwise teams. Diego Simeone’s team have a lot of appealing traits but their manager could also be seen imploring the match officials to show Jamie Vardy the yellow card that would have meant him, too, being banned.
With that in mind, Shakespeare decided it would be sensible to substitute Vardy in the 78th minute and there was another incident in the second half when Atlético’s bench took exception to Leicester’s sports scientist, Tom Joel, trying to get some water to Albrighton after the winger complained of stomach cramps. Joel had left the technical area without permission and was sent to the stands for his troubles.
Shakespeare talked afterwards about his team being “hard done by” because of the penalty incident and they might also reflect on the moment, just before the hour, when Riyad Mahrez did find a way into the opposition penalty area and went to ground as Gabi came across to challenge him. There was no doubt Mahrez exaggerated his fall but it would not have been a scandal if the game had been given its second penalty. Gabi had flicked out his right leg but was quick to bring it back and make his case, vociferously, that it was a deception on the part of his opponent.
Otherwise Mahrez was only on the edges of the game. Vardy was an isolated figure and there were only fleeting moments when Leicester threatened Jan Oblak’s goal. Atlético’s performance was a reminder of why they have reached two of the last three finals. As well as outpassing and out-thinking Leicester for long spells, the statistics also showed they out-ran them by some considerable distance. It was quick, high-energy, almost unremitting pressure, with Griezmann, Saúl and Yannick Carrasco adding some refined touches, and Leicester simply found it beyond them to apply any sustained pressure of their own.
On that front the damage could have been significantly worse. Fernando Torres, with one of the game’s better opportunities, slipped just as he was taking aim and, early on, Koke flashed a 25-yard shot against the post. Yet it needed a controversial penalty to provide the game’s decisive moment. Griezmann’s run started from inside his own half when he collected the ball on the left touchline, Danny Simpson having strayed out of position. Albrighton came across, trying to bail out his team‑mate, but ended up barging into the player and Griezmann made the most of the referee’s generosity.