There is no sugar-coating this. English football has gone missing again in the Champions League, however valiantly Leicester fought to reach the semi-finals. Only Manchester United’s Europa League campaign stands between the Premier League and continental wipe-out. Maybe we should talk about this.
People will discuss it, of course, but not for long. And there are unlikely to be any startling new explanations. It was left to the 12th placed team in the world’s richest league to defend the honour of the English club game. They were marvellous in that task. Jamie Vardy’s equaliser, on the hour, was a reward for a dramatic surge of effort after the interval, and had Atlético shaking in their boots.
What credit Leicester deserve for assailing their guests in that second-half. Atlético are veterans of epic clashes with Barcelona and Real Madrid. They have forced their way into the elite of Spanish football. In the King Power Stadium in the East Midlands, though, they were made to look the most beleaguered team on earth, even when Leicester needed two more goals to progress. Rarely can a Diego Simeone team have been so disorientated by relentless pressure.
Finally, the fightback was too much to ask of Leicester, however good the pre-match show, which must have been audible in Derby and Nottingham, and however fierce their second-half contribution. Great noise, immense spirit, but no famous outcome.
On a whiteboard, Leicester’s style could be compared with that of Atlético Madrid. But on the pitch? Not so much. The ingredient Atlético bring to any clash with a team at Leicester’s level is smooth passing and graceful movement: not consistently, but often enough to cause problems. There are flashes of beauty to the very best of their play that only Riyad Mahrez on the home side could match.
So you watched this second-leg in the early stages sensing a gap in class. Not in effort, but in class. The kind of direct play that took many teams apart in the Premier League last year seemed to find its limit against Simeone’s team, who are Champions League aristocracy now.
The stadium management kicked up a tremendous din. There were fireworks outside the ground and blasts of steam that would have lifted a spaceship. Atlético must have thought they had wandered into a special effects convention. It was enough to make the ears bleed. By half-time, however, Leicester were in need of three goals to go through, after Saul Niguez had met a Filipe Luis cross with an emphatic thrust of his head.
Less than a year after writing one improbable tale, Leicester tried to roll out a European version, but sales are much harder over there, not only for England’s champions but the whole of the Premier League, which seems to have turned inward since Chelsea’s win in 2012.
“Come on England,” Leicester’s fans chanted briefly, in the first-half, perhaps hoping to turn this into a national effort. Now 2-0 down on aggregate, and with Atlético clutching an away goal, Craig Shakespeare withdrew Shinji Okazaki at half-tine in favour of Leonardo Ulloa, and switched to three at the back.
Leicester’s tempo was high, and chances were created after the interval, but we saw a burst of Atlético’s potency when Antoine Griezmann, this summer’s top transfer target, dashed through the blue line from 40-yards and only narrowly missed Yannick Carrasco with his cross.
No wonder they call Griezmann the “Swiss army knife” of Simeone’s team. He can do everything: right, left, at No9 and No10. But in the second-half Leicester marginalised him with their ceaseless attacks.
Just as nobody conceived Leicester’s Premier League title win at 5,000-1, no rational punter would have bet on them to be England’s last representative in Champions League action. Especially after the team returned from a long summer of euphoria on a giant bed of laurels. Whatever the truth behind Claudio Rainieri’s sacking, no-one could claim Leicester showed up to defend their league title with a dagger between their teeth.
Yet Europe has been to their fancy. They won all four home games in the competition before this tie with last year’s beaten finalists. Their counter-attacking style seemed suited to the more cerebral realm of ‘abroad’; and the excitement of seeing fresh faces, European names, in the other half of the pitch, energised these Leicester players.
But however grand the victory over Sevilla last time, a mid-table Premier League side with no wins in three were bound to hit trouble against opponents who were contesting their ninth quarter-final - and aiming for a third semi-final in four years.
In this valiant losing effort, Leicester made a point to those who dismissed them as freakish Premier League winners and predicted their return to anonymity. Normally you would not praise a team for going out of an elite competition. But to go out like this, against such high-calibre opponents?
Their performance in the second-half emboldened their supporters to chant: “Champions of England - we know what we are.” It no longer sounded hollow. Leicester were recognisably the team we marvelled at last year: certainly in spirit and application.
The English game can be less proud, because the regression since 2012 is troubling. Leicester cannot be blamed for it. They did their bit.