As Leicester City’s players drifted out of Estadio Vicente Calderón shortly before midnight, a TV reporter mentioned to Danny Simpson that there was no need for such a long face after a narrow defeat against a team who have reached the Champions League final twice in the past three seasons, especially when there is still so much to play for in the second leg.
It was a fair point to make after a 1-0 defeat that could have been worse, yet it also overlooked the fact that Simpson and his team-mates had just experienced what it feels like to play against an Atlético Madrid side who never stop running. Breaking into a smile, Simpson politely made that point when he explained he was tired, and he was not the only Leicester player who looked exhausted as they headed back to the team hotel. Atlético are renowned for being unforgiving opponents in La Liga and beyond. Or, to borrow the phrase that one coach used last season, “horrible bastards to play against”.
Leicester have got that dubious pleasure twice in the space of a week. The second leg of their Champions League quarter-final takes place at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday and it would be dangerous to write off the Premier League champions when Antoine Griezmann’s goal is all that Atlético had to show for their dominance in Madrid. Maybe, though, that controversial first-half penalty is all that the Spanish club need.
Trying to overturn a deficit against Atlético is an unenviable position for any team, let alone one facing the prospect of being without their first-choice central defenders. Robert Huth will be missing through suspension after his yellow card in Madrid and Craig Shakespeare did not sound overly optimistic that Wes Morgan, the captain, will have recovered from a back injury in time.
All of which leaves Leicester in a bit of quandary as they contemplate chasing goals against arguably the best counterattacking team in Europe, knowing all the while that Yohan Benalouane is likely to be partnered at centre-half by Daniel Amartey or possibly Christian Fuchs in a makeshift defence. Amartey has played for Ghana in central defence, including at the Africa Cup of Nations earlier this year, while Fuchs also has some experience of playing in that role, although Shakespeare may be reluctant to move the Austrian across from left-back.
Leicester, clearly, could have done without a defensive headache before the biggest game in their history, not least because preventing Atlético from scoring appears to be critical to their chances of progressing. Should they fail to keep a clean sheet, they will have to score a minimum of three times, something that no team have managed in the Champions League for 32 matches, stretching back to a group stage game with Olympiakos in September 2014, when the Spanish club lost 3-2.
Although bad luck has played a part in Leicester’s defensive crisis – Morgan had started 88 consecutive Premier League games before his back started to give him problems at the end of last month – poor recruitment is also to blame. Leicester looked short in central defence before the season started, with Wasilewski never likely to be a realistic alternative to Morgan or Huth (a trio with a combined age of 101).
Luis Hernández was signed on a free transfer from Sporting Gijón, yet Claudio Ranieri, the former manager, used the Spaniard at right-back far more than centre-half and within six months the player was heading back to La Liga. Molla Wagué joined on loan in January as a replacement for Hernández but his only appearance ended with him dislocating a shoulder in the FA Cup defeat at Millwall.
Plans are in place to address these problems, with Leicester identifying Ben Gibson, the Middlesbrough defender recently called up to the England squad, as one of their main targets. For the moment, however, their focus is on Atlético.
Whatever Shakespeare decides to do defensively in the second leg against Simeone’s team, it is perhaps worth remembering that Leicester need to inflict some damage at the other end and that will mean attacking with conviction and belief. The manager can be forgiven for adopting such a cautious approach in Madrid, where his team failed to register a shot on target and Jamie Vardy was isolated to such an extent that he attempted only two passes, but the handbrake will need to be released at home if Leicester are to upset the odds once more.