The statistics that kept being reeled off pre-match weren’t in Leicester’s favour. Even putting aside common knowledge of just how good and well organised this Atletico side are, there was the fact that they’re superb at home, how few goals they’ve conceded and goalkeeper, Jan Oblak, having never conceded at this stage of the competition. They’ve come close in two Champions League finals. For Leicester City to come away with just a one goal deficit is no mean feat; it’s a huge result and leaves the Foxes with everything to play for in the second, and home, leg.
It may not have been a highly exciting match for fans, but few will be complaining. Once again we can feel a sense of pride in our side. There was no pressure, the club having already over-achieved in this competition. To give ourselves a fighting chance in the second leg was the main aim, and one we achieved. It was a nervy beginning, possibly not helped by the impressive and very loud Atletico fans, but the Foxes did weather the storm and started to look more confident, before the decision that turned things. In truth, it was a game where a 0-0 scoreline wouldn’t have felt unfair. Neither Oblak or Kasper Schmeichel were particularly busy in goal, few saves made from either of them.
There was a sense of deja vu in the match though. Twenty years ago the Foxes faced Atletico in Europe, inexperienced and probably outclassed but also on the receiving end of a penalty that probably wasn’t after Steve Guppy made a tackle in the box. The Guppy of this current side would be Marc Albrighton, whose last ditch attempt to cover Antoine Griezmann handed Atletico the penalty that won this leg. Ok, perhaps it was naive from the winger to foul Griezmann at such speed, and so close to the box, but as the last man and not an experienced defender, his attempt at stopping the striker was probably the best we could hope for. It certainly wasn’t a penalty though, the foul clearly committed outside of the box.
Kasper Schmeichel’s Champions League record is very good and having saved two penalties on the bounce in the competition, it would have been some effort had he have been able to make it a hat-trick of saves. Sadly, having been our biggest cause of concern during the first half, Griezmann showed why he’s so in demand with a well struck penalty. As it happened, that was probably the last dangerous thing he did for his side.
While we generally knew what to expect from Diego Simeoni’s side, we were getting caught out time and time again by the French striker in the first half. He was sitting behind Torres and so it was either down to Ndidi to drop back and cover him, or Robert Huth to come out and close him. Cue confusion and much opportunity for Griezmann to get into and take the ball through to dangerous positions. Our midfield duo both ended up going deep to cover him, further isolating Jamie Vardy up front, who looked more and more ball shy.
Craig Shakespeare played his cards at half-time though, substituting Shinji Okazaki in favour of Andy King, the Foxes able to drop Ndidi to sit just in front of the defence and ensuring that wherever Griezmann turned, he was nearby. It was a smart tactic from the manager and had instant impact for us. The Frenchman didn’t see as much of the ball and Atletico looked worse for it. Their creativity seemed to dry up more and more as the match progressed.
While no side wants to face the second leg on a loss, Leicester had another concern to factor in. Huth, Ndidi and Vardy were all on a yellow card, meaning one in this game would lead to suspension. Simeoni’s side would also have been aware of this and certain things certainly seemed to be done in a bid to exploit this, but in the end only Huth was booked. It’s a big loss for the Foxes. It’s particularly frustrating given how strong Huth had been in this game, notably in the second half. Wes Morgan will face a race against the clock to be fit in time for the second leg, and if he can’t make it, we have just one option; Daniel Amartey. A man who has only played at centre-back for his country, never for us. Don’t be surprised if every possible method is explored, tried and tested to ensure Morgan can start on Tuesday.
This game marked a welcome return to form for Yohan Benalouane though. The Tunisian defender struggled against Everton at the weekend, drawn out of position too easily and also clumsy in tackles and headers. Not so against Atletico. He was strong, commanding and made some vital tackles and blocks. Keeping Fernando Torres quiet isn’t something to be sneered at, and considering his exposure to the Champions League has been minimal, you wouldn’t have known it having watched him. Much like our side as a whole, he adjusted more and more as the game went on and certainly made another claim for him to keep that spot.
There’s everything to play for on Tuesday night at the King Power stadium. It was a special and incredibly loud atmosphere against Sevilla and this won’t be more reserved. Yes, there are things we need to do better, we conceded our limited possession too cheaply and we carried several players but we have to believe that we can still do this; that Simeoni’s defensive wall can be broken down. There was clear frustration after the game from the first half decision and as we’ve seen time and time again, our players tend to react rather well when they’re frustrated.