Atlético Madrid’s swat-team stifle fury and craft of Leicester artisans | Barney Ronay

Barney Ronay at the King Power Stadium
Jamie Vardy and Craig Shakespeare share the agony of Leicester City’s Champions League exit against Atlético Madrid. Photograph: Magi Haroun/Rex/Shutterstock

And, breathe again. For Leicester City the dream did not so much die at the King Power Stadium as bleed away, at first quietly before expiring in a defiant blizzard of noise and hustle. With an hour gone at a ground that crackled all night Jamie Vardy revived this second leg with an equaliser to make it 1-1, and 2-1 to Atlético Madrid overall, as the score would stay to the end.

Leicester had rejigged at half-time, shifting to a voguish three-man defence after an opening 45 minutes in which they were outclassed too easily, the limits of the possible exposed by a mature and purposeful Madrid who always looked to have strength in reserve.

By the end Leicester left the Champions League in more fitting fashion, the second half a vigorous, full-throated Viking funeral to their gatecrashing run at Europe’s elite. It had always seemed likely to be that kind of night. Before kick-off the King Power was alight, the stands crammed with a brilliant, booming mess of shiny flags and a home crowd entirely lost in the moment.

As Leicester pushed hard to the end it all felt a bit like a house party the night before the removal men come, the kind of evening when the drinks cabinet is drained, the fridge emptied, plates smashed, party poppers unspooled all over the kitchen floor. And why not? For Leicester this was in effect the closing of a two-year cycle of improbable ascent, bookend to the first stirring of The Pearson Ignition as relegation threatened in April 2015.

This is still a callow team and for a while Leicester looked it as they rattled away at Atlético’s triple-bolted defence. Vardy scampered about, chasing every punt to the corners and doing his best to ruffle a high-class defence that came prepared and ready for the scrap. But at times in that decisive opening half-hour it seemed as though Atlético were holding Leicester at bay like an indulgent uncle with his palm on his nephew’s crown, fists windmilling away in the space between.

With 25 minutes gone Riyad Mahrez had his best moment of the half, nudging the ball past Felipe Luís, running round the other side, wriggling between two defenders and almost playing in Vardy. Within a minute Atlético had scored and cruelly so for Mahrez as it came from his side.

Luís was given too much time to curl a cross out towards Saúl Ñíguez on the far edge of the area. The header back into the far corner was brilliantly executed, placed with decisive power past Kasper Schmeichel. It was a goal to kill a game, a swift, no-frills counter attack garnished with a beautifully severe finish from Atlético’s first real chance.

The King Power fell silent for a second before the noise came flooding back in, defiant even as the knife slid between the ribs. And for all Leicester’s energy in attack, that was basically it for this tie. Vardy’s goal after the hour was a fine finish after a goalmouth scramble. There might have been more too but for some desperate blocks as Mahrez and Vardy found pockets of space.

The fact Atlético could hold Leicester at bay without ever quite becoming bloodied is tribute to their own mastery in this competition. This is, after all, one of the great club football machines of the modern age. They remain both a tactical model and a terrible match for Leicester’s own fast-breaking style. Both are counter-punchers.

It is just that one happens to be Floyd Mayweather, blessed with genuinely top-class attackers, deeper gears and real strength in depth. In addition, of course, Atlético are managed by a tactical and motivational genius in Diego Simeone, who strode around the King Power touchline like a weird hybrid of Johnny Cash, Pablo Escobar and Brian Clough while Leicester are currently in the care of a shrewd-looking bloke who played for Grimsby and has lurked usefully in the background for the past few years.

There will be a moment to reflect a little more severely on all this. Leicester were full of verve, relentlessly committed and a credit to their station as outsiders. But they are also the Premier League champions and were the last representative of the world’s richest league in this competition. At times they looked as if they were playing another, more dated game, time-travelling visitors from the 1980s up against a state-of-the-art footballing power. No doubt now they are out of the competition the Premier League will once again be cuffed about the chops, chastised and generally taken to task.

There is a temptation to become a little maudlin about all this. The fact is there are some excellent teams in the Premier League, or at least teams that are good enough to compete at this late stage. No doubt the English league is the home of hype. But rather than a simple gulf in class the failure in Europe often seems more like an issue of tempo and style and timing, of never quite being in the right groove at the right time. Either way a great deal more will be expected next season.

Not that anybody cared inside the King Power. Leicester leave this competition, probably for the last time, with heads held high and the memory of some bravura nights in this rattly, corrugated noise funnel of a stadium. At the end they were cheered from the pitch with the sense of an ending; and of a story that has perhaps now run its giddy, glorious course.

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