Leicester's spirited Champions League journey ended by clinical Atletico Madrid

Ian Herbert
The Independent
Leicester found it difficult to break down Atletico: Getty
Leicester found it difficult to break down Atletico: Getty

They were squeezing life out of this night long after it was seemingly dead and gone, which is not the only reason to give thanks for Leicester City. Their journey has been testament to how European nights can be feverish and heady for those who throw everything at them: a message across the miles to Manchester City.

In the long years which will probably unfold before the club is back on this stage, they will always have the Jamie Vardy moments around the hour mark to remember from the last knockings of the European story: the striker’s beautiful equalising goal and then his shot which Stefan Savic blocked, with the team needing to score an improbable three.

‘Get into ‘em’ and ‘sing your hearts out’ were the anthems from the stands, along with ‘Come on Shakespeare’s boys’ – another sentiment with the English nation at its core. It really looked as if they might have enough to come back in that second half.

Atletico doubled their advantage through Saul's header (Getty)
Atletico doubled their advantage through Saul's header (Getty)

Ultimately, the cold hard truth was that songs and passion made no difference. Leicester were technically and tactically outfought by a side who revealed that class ultimately tells on this stage. Atletico Madrid are scrappers too, revealing a fighting spirit in the ranks, corralled on their way by Diego Simeone, who cut an uncompromising figure in black coat.

The Spaniards’ skill in possession shut Leicester out of the game until it was up. Allowing the opposition possession and then striking them on the counter attack only works against those who are vulnerable and that can’t be said of the side who emerged with a 2-1 aggregate win.

Craig Shakespeare, the man appointed manager until the end of the season, enhanced his credibility as a longer term leader with a tactical shift which made a difference: the deployment of a three-man defence for the second half which worked impressively. The physical presence of Leonardo Ulloa told and the home side managed to make inroads down the flanks, through Ben Chilwell another Shakespeare introduced. It contradicted the image of Leicester as a side with no Plan B.

By half time, there had been four goal attempts, by full-time 25, though only a fifth of that number on target, which was testament to the organisation of Diego Simeone’s side.

Leicester had started well. Just three years ago this week they were grinding out a 1-0 win at Bolton in the Championship and now here they were, finding their centre half’s fitness a topic of national conversation and unleashing jets of stream from the camera gantries as part of the party.

Jamie Vardy's strike gave Leicester faint hope (Getty)
Jamie Vardy's strike gave Leicester faint hope (Getty)

For a time there was jet fuel in the atmosphere, too, as Jamie Vardy was despatched into enemy turf by Riyad Mahrez, and in the early minutes, the dogs of war were howling from the terraces. Saul Niguez leapt into the path of a Danny Drinkwater strike, Diego Godin was enough of a presence to deter Shinki Okazaki running onto a low Vardy cross, and in the kind of European company that Leicester have kept this season , that would have been enough for the opposition to falter and begin to fall.

That never looked like happening. What overwhelmed you about Diego Simeone’s side amid that early attrition was the poise. Godin, a monumental defender, shut out Vardy, Marc Albrighton’s hoisted deliveries from the left were headed away and when the Spaniards began their own incursions the gulf in class became manifest.

There were individualists - Antoine Griezmann foremost among them as he drifted deep to create a an attacking axis – but Atletico were a collective too, always with time to pause, to look for options and to create space as Leicester sprinted around in front of them. The goal which effectively secured the tie was a metaphor for a team with time to stand and plot: Saul Niguez, 15 yards out, waiting and waiting for the cross Filipe Luis bent to him and straining every sinew to direct it with supreme accuracy beyond the dive of Kasper Schmeichel.

The need for three goals stilled the stadium for a time, though the second half also revealed that extraordinary way in which spirit and mentality can shape the course of this sport.

With their new system, Leicester began to make inroads and the equaliser came when Chilwell’s cross from the left was deflected by a defender into the path of Vardy, who shaped to fire it hard but angled his instep into the ball he sent beyond Jan Oblak on the hour.

Vardy was flat on his back at the end, staring into the night sky. Sorrow did not come into it though. This was an exit like none other: a night to be cherished down the years.

Leicester City (4-2-3-1): Schmeichel; Simpson, Morgan, Benalouane, Fuchs; Ndidi, Drinkwater; Mahrez, Okazaki, Albrighton; Vardy.

Substitutes: Zieler, Chilwell, Musa, King, Amartey, Gray, Ulloa.

Atletico Madrid (4-4-2): Oblak; Juanfran, Savic, Godin, Filipe Luis; Saul Niguez, Gabi, Gimenez, Koke; Carraso, Griezmann.

Substitutes: Moya, Torres, Correa, Hernandez, Gameiro, Thomas, Gaitan.

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