After Kasper Schmeichel had spent a good few minutes arguing about how Leicester City’s 1-0 defeat to Atletico Madrid was the wrong result, he was eventually asked whether they could actually get the right result and actually go through.
“Why not?” the goalkeeper asked in that typically forthright way of his. “I’ve always said ‘why not?’ European nights are something special, especially the home nights… I think everyone is very much up for the fight.”
You can be absolutely guaranteed that Atletico will be up for that fight too, though, and the defensive solidity that attitude has helped fire is one massive reason - to answer Schmeichel’s question - why Leicester might not go through. The English champions now face what has arguably been the toughest challenge in European football over the past few seasons, and one that both Bayern Munich and Barcelona have struggled with in the past few seasons. That is to just score against Diego Simeone’s side, let alone score enough to actually go through.
Atletico’s record says enough, given they have conceded just seven goals in 17 Champions League knock-out matches, but it was still something that went curiously uncommented on in the aftermath of Leicester’s 1-0 defeat. Their players and manager Craig Shakespeare were fairly talking about how the penalty should not have been given and the effect of the second leg given that they may be without their first-choice central defence of the suspended Robert Huth and injured Wes Morgan, but the real focus should have been on Atletico’s backline. Leicester couldn’t really get near them.
In the one moment when Jamie Vardy suddenly seemed to get free in the area, Stefan Savic completely shut out the danger with the kind of ferociously full-bodied tackle that has become such a trait of Simeone’s side. It’s as if they’re not just looking to win the ball. They’re looking to make you lose a bit of will for the battle, too.
They’re also exactly the kind of challenges Simeone used to make in his own playing career, and it used to be said around the Argentine national squad that he had “ugly feet” - as a compliment. It meant he threw himself into tackles, and many at Atletico say that is key, because it means that the manager is speaking from direct experience and asking them to do what he did, not just what he says. That is something else that deepens the connection between Simeone and his players, and thereby amplifies the intensity and motivation of every individual moment of the game. This is a team always fully fired for such occasions, and that is the first quality that fires that defending.
It is not all emotion, either. Far from it. That is just the foundation. The Atletico manager has built on it with deeply intelligent tactical acumen, and many in top-level coaching circles believe he has caused a quantum leap in defending in the same way that Pep Guardiola caused a quantum leap in attacking with his evolution of pressing-possession back in 2008. Simeone sees the pitch in blocks, and his players in near military-organised units. Every defensive act is based on phalanxes of players working in highly-coordinated cohesion, allowing them to so ruthlessly reduce space like barely anyone else in the game.
That is further enhanced by the most intelligent preparation.
Full-back Filipe Luis summed up so much of this when asked whether the first leg had been a different game to what he expected. It had not. It went almost completely to plan, as if Simeone had gathered so much information it had given him an insight to foresee it.
“No, no, we had it very clear what it would be like,” Filipe Luis said. “We watched so many videos, we had all the information possible, and that was exactly the game we were expecting.”
And the second leg? That’s already been planned for.
“I think at home they tend to have a bit more of the ball, they risk a bit more, so we have to be defensively perfect because they have players like we saw today, [Riyad] Mahrez is a ‘crack’, Vardy is an extremely fast striker, he is looking to make those quick runs all the time, so we are going to have to be so concentrated… That’s the level of our defence, they’re on great form. But you could see it with Griezmann too, the whole team fights together, is so compact, with winning the only thing in our heads so we’re very happy with the clean sheet.”
To properly top it off and make this even more ‘real’ for the opposition, there is some proper streetwise play to go with that intelligence. That is not a euphemism for diving or gamesmanship, either. It is all the little moments displayed in the first leg when a Leicester forward would make a move, only for an Atletico defender to fairly position their body in such a way that it would effortlessly take away the danger and industrially take out the player. There was just that canniness to them.
Leicester, to use more of Schmeichel’s words, are going to have to come up with something really special to get through Atletico - and somehow get through to the semi-finals.