Leicester City may have exited the Champions League in the quarter-finals, but it’s nothing to be ashamed of, just a 2-1 loss on aggregate to the giants that are Atletico Madrid. In fact, the Foxes leave with their heads held high, having exceeded every expectation and more. The feeling in the dressing is probably disappointment right now, but they can be proud of their efforts. Foxes fans certainly are and the team were fully deserving of their standing ovation.
It was a courageous attempt to overturn a 1-0 deficit, the statistics backing Leicester’s attempt. We outranked Atletico on shots, possession and more and were unfortunate once again to find ourselves behind. It was a night where luck didn’t much bless us, second balls never quite bounced the way we wanted but despite this, we never stopped trying. The cliche goes that it’s always the hope that kills you, and perhaps that’s why the players were so upset at the end. It’s the what ifs of had we scored first, or got the second goal that we came close to on several occasions. Still, getting stung by Atletico’s class, by a team who’ve made it two recent Champions League finals is not entirely surprising.
For the Foxes, it’s been an amazing two years, this run in Europe another cherry on top of an already crowded cake. We defied the odds of so many; after all we were touted to embarrass the Premier League in the competition by so many, not least Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger. Instead, we can proudly look back on the fact that we came further than any other English side, remained in the draw with the giants of European football and boasted the best home record, undefeated at the King Power stadium. Our squad, not world beaters on their own, but a tough to beat unit collectively, achieved this and enjoyed some incredible nights; memories that can never be taken away.
It’s natural that despite how incredible this was, and how hard we tried, that there’s a twinge of disappointment. We know that Leicester may never qualify for the tournament again in our lifetime and that for many of these players this was their one chance at playing in it and coming close to going all the way. You could see on the faces each time that music rang out just how proud they felt to be playing in it. Perhaps getting out of our group wasn’t a surprise, but winning it ahead of the likes of Porto probably was. Despite us having the underdog title throughout and being written off time and time again, we kept on going. The atmosphere at the King Power throughout has been spine-tingling and none more so than tonight. It was emotional as the stadium filled early, flags were waved and battle cries rang out. Few scenes have floored me so much.
Excitement temporarily turned to nerves and some frustration. Diego Simeone’s side expertly broke up the tempo of play, drew fouls and ended up with some favourable decisions. It caused the Foxes to dig deep and reassess our approach.
It’s a pretty successful campaign as far as Craig Shakespeare is concerned too. Over the course of both legs against Atletico, he showed tactical nouse and grit in his team selection, substitutions and the applied approaches. His half-time change of Andy King in Madrid turned the game and he wasn’t afraid to make changes in this second leg either. Shinji Okazaki and Yohan Benalouane made way for Leonardo Ulloa and Ben Chilwell.
The introduction of Ulloa meant we can be more direct and try to hold up the ball well, his contributions definitely helping. In replacing Benalouane with Chilwell, it looked more like we switched to a back three with the young full-back playing more on the wing. His pace was well utilised and he was the cause of many of our attacks in the second half, his play freeing Riyad Mahrez to drift more into the middle. Chilwell came very close to scoring himself, his shot helping lead to Jamie Vardy’s goal that inspired the Foxes to dream again of making a brilliant comeback.
Having got pretty much everything right, Shakespeare won’t be left with many regrets. For a new manager, let alone one new to the Champions League, he’s done himself proud too and demonstrated what he’s gleaned from his years serving Nigel Pearson and Claudio Ranieri. His own performance in this will help his cause in securing the position past the summer, one it’s difficult to imagine few Leicester fans being opposed to.
Had you offered the average Foxes fan a mid-table finish in the Premier League with quarter-finals in the Champions League, many would have taken it. The only thing we wanted was the club to show why we deserved to be in the competition and to show what we’re capable of. We’ve more than done that and a top ten finish is still up for grabs if we re-focus and finish strongly. To add some additional perspective; it’s only eight years ago that we danced the Conga at Southend United away as promotion out of League One was confirmed. So there’s not too much sadness at this defeat; it’s more about celebrating how far we’ve come and the potential that remains in this squad.