Bruges, Copenhagen, Porto, Seville and now Madrid. Leicester City’s European adventure has already exceeded all expectations but it will need something special under the floodlights at the King Power Stadium next Tuesday if Craig Shakespeare and his players are to extend their journey in the Champions League once more.
The damage Atlético Madrid inflicted in the first leg is far from irretrievable as far as Leicester are concerned, yet in many ways they could not be playing catch-up against a worse team given the Spanish club’s fondness for letting opponents come on to them before breaking with alacrity.
Leicester were on the receiving end of one of those counter-attacks on a balmy evening in Madrid, which carried echoes of the refereeing injustice that Martin O’Neill’s side suffered back in 1997, when the two clubs met in the Uefa Cup first round in a tie that ended with the Northern Irishman absolutely seething.
On that occasion O’Neill was bitterly upset with Remi Harrel, the French referee, for turning down three penalty decisions and dismissing Garry Parker. This time Jonan Eriksson, the Swedish official, outraged Leicester by awarding Atlético a spot-kick that should never have been given.
Antoine Griezmann was tearing up the pitch at breakneck speed, running into the space that had opened up for him for the first time after Danny Simpson was caught upfield, when Marc Albrighton came charging across and clumsily brought the Frenchman down. It was an obvious foul, yet from the opposite side of the ground to where the incident took place, and in the back row of this wonderful stadium’s vertiginous stands, it appeared as though Albrighton’s tackle was made outside the area. That view was confirmed with the aid of television replays, yet Eriksson had pointed to the spot instantly and Griezmann converted.
Leicester, on the balance of play, can hardly complain about the result. At the same time there is no escaping the fact that it was a particularly poor piece of officiating by a referee operating at this level and easy to understand why Shakespeare and his players were so frustrated afterwards.
It was also pretty much the only occasion in the match when several Leicester players were deep inside the opposition half – and therein lies a warning for the second leg, when the onus will be on the Premier League champions to try to break Atlético down. Diego Simeone’s side thrive in that situation and it will be a huge challenge for Shakespeare to set his team up with enough attacking freedom to score while also remaining solid and compact defensively.
An away goal would have made the job considerably easier, but the truth is that Leicester never looked like repeating what they did in Seville, where Vardy’s second-half strike changed the complexion of the tie. Vardy drilled a low shot across the face of goal early on against Atlético but that was a rare Leicester foray forward on a night when the England international was isolated to such an extent that he attempted only two passes, neither of which found a team-mate. Leicester never registered a shot on goal all evening.
In that sense the Leicester supporters had little to cheer on a day when a minority let themselves down with their behaviour in Madrid before the game. Footage circulated on social media showing fans chanting about German bombers and singing “Gibraltar is ours”. Some of those travelling from England claimed that the Spanish police had used heavy-handed tactics to clear Plaza Mayor, where many of the Leicester supporters had congregated. Either way, it was an unsavoury backdrop that did nothing to help English football’s reputation overseas.
On the pitch Leicester are flying the flag for the country as the only Premier League club to get through to the last eight of the Champions League, and the good news is that a place in the semi-finals is not out of reach. The bad news it that Robert Huth picked up a yellow card in the second half that rules him out of the second leg, which is the last thing Leicester needed with Wes Morgan, their captain, currently out injured with a back problem.
Yohan Benalouane has been parachuted into the team to replace Morgan in recent weeks and the Tunisian, whose only appearances for Leicester up until February were for the club’s under-23 team in the Checkatrade Trophy, made several important blocks on an impressive Champions League debut.
Leicester were under pressure for long periods, defensively stretched and hanging on at times, yet the reality is that Atlético registered only four attempts on goal on an evening when Kasper Schmeichel would have expected to have been a lot busier.
Shakespeare admitted afterwards that he would probably have taken a 1-0 defeat beforehand, yet it is a dangerous scoreline to go into a second leg with, the more so against a team with Atlético Madrid’s qualities.