To put everything into context, it is probably worth bearing in mind that when the plane carrying Leicester City’s players landed at Barajas airport it was eight years to the day the team were on their way to Edgar Street, home of Hereford United, rather than Estadio Vicente Calderón and a meeting with an Atlético Madrid side who have reached two of the past three Champions League finals.
A lot has changed since that 3-1 defeat of Hereford on 11 April 2009, even if one member of the travelling party back then, Andy King, remains a fixture in the first‑team squad. The crowd was 4,389 and Leicester, on their way to promotion from League One, had just come out of a run of games featuring Carlisle, Peterborough and Colchester. The closest they came to silverware that season was in the Johnstone’s Paint Trophy, beating Hartlepool and Lincoln (on penalties) before a 2-0 defeat against Rotherham in the northern district quarter-finals.
All of which felt a far cry from the scene here, in the heart of one of Europe’s football capitals, as Craig Shakespeare took his seat to debate whether the most implausible success story of the modern football era could reach even greater heights. Shakespeare has been a manager for only seven games and joined the coaching staff at Leicester at the start of that season in League One. “You have to pinch yourself at times,” he said, having been asked by the Leicester Mercury correspondent to remember the first game, against Milton Keynes Dons. “When you look back at where this club has come from, then you walk through this stadium, seeing all the cups – a lovely, traditional ground – it does give you a little tingle.”
Kasper Schmeichel, sitting to his left, made a similar point as he reflected on his own travels to reach this point. Schmeichel was at Notts County as recently as 2010 and could also recall various “lower-league rejections,” as well as loan arrangements at Darlington, Bury and Falkirk, during his formative years at Manchester City. “When you look at the DNA of our team, the type of characters we have and the journeys we have been on, these are the kind of nights you want,” Leicester’s goalkeeper said. “When I was in League Two, playing these games was what I was aiming for. The big-pressure games like this – this is what you live for, what you play for.”
Yet Leicester are not here as sightseers and that was the point Shakespeare really wanted to make amid questions surrounding Claudio Ranieri’s claims someone at the club may have deliberately undermined him – or, as it was put to Shakespeare from the front row of assembled journalists, “stabbed him in the back”. Shakespeare, to nobody’s surprise, wanted to deny it was him but the most important detail is that, whatever happened behind the scenes, the decision to remove Ranieri increasingly looks like the right one. His replacement has soothed any fears Leicester might have been the first team since Manchester City in 1937 to win the league be relegated the following year.
Instead, Shakespeare is trying to emulate Tony Barton from 1981 and Roberto Di Matteo in 2012 by replacing a title-winning manager and leading a team to European glory and, with all due respect to Ranieri, probably the best way to assess it is that Atlético would rather the managerial change had never been made. “Make no mistake, we’re here to compete,” Shakespeare, emboldened by their improved form, said. “We’re not just here to make the numbers up.”
His team’s chances have been diminished by the back issue affecting Wes Morgan even if the captain is in Madrid and intends to deliver his own team talk in the dressing room. A lot therefore depends on how Yohan Benalouane, deputising in central defence, copes on a night the Tunisian could probably never have envisaged when he was turning out for Leicester’s under-23s in the Checkatrade Trophy earlier this season.
Benalouane might have been one of Ranieri’s signings, costing £5.6m from Atalanta, but his contribution to their title-winning season comprised four substitute appearances and 65 minutes on the pitch. He did not feature once because of an injury after being loaned to Fiorentina midway through the season and was left out of Leicester’s 25-man squad at the start of this campaign before being offered a way back, unexpectedly, in January. If England’s last representatives in this competition are to reach the semi-finals, his performance against Antoine Griezmann, Fernando Torres et al could be crucial.
Otherwise, the four Leicester players who are in danger of missing the second leg through their totted-up yellow cards will have to operate with a certain degree of football intelligence judging by everything Atlético’s more streetwise players – moulded very much in the personality of Diego Simeone – may try to make sure it turns out to be an advantage for La Liga’s third-placed team. Jamie Vardy, Robert Huth, Islam Slimani and Wilfred Ndidi will be ruled out if they are booked and there is no guarantee Morgan’s back will have cleared up in time. Shakespeare said he would remind the relevant players to keep that in mind and it sounded like sensible management from a man who has come a long way since those days negotiating the puddles and potholes of League One.