A match that ended with just a slim lead for Atletico Madrid, but a performance that suggests Leicester City only really have a slim hope of going through to the Champions League semi-finals.
Craig Shakespeare and his players might well point to what happened in their last-16 tie, and that the decisive penalty should not have been given. It is also true that the nuances of knock-out football could yet see them continue this miracle after what was a fundamentally decent away result in such a difficult venue, but it would still be true that Atletico are a level above Sevilla in terms of European experience - and probably a few levels above Leicester and anything they’ve faced in the Premier League. This quarter-final first leg at the Vicente Calderon so regularly reflected that, as Diego Simeone’s side just seemed to have so much more quality and street-wise canniness.
If Leicester can take some consolation from the fact it is only 1-0 from Antoine Griezmann’s first-half penalty, this game had a few big consequences for the second leg. Atletico are in exactly the position their supremely mean defence love to be in, while counter-attacking Leicester have to come out and score with the psychological shadow of an away goal, let alone one of their own to play on Atletico minds.
Atletico just looked so much surer of themselves mentally, as well as on the pitch.
If this was anticipated as a battle between two sides who generally thrive on letting the other team have the ball, you wouldn’t have guessed it from how Atletico started. They instead seemed determined to show this was a mismatch between one team who has supreme recent pedigree in this competition, and one who still can’t quite believe their luck that they are here. They also seemed determined to end the tie within the first 20 minutes. They had enough chances to do just that.
After Fernando Torres had threatened with one early run into the box, Koke then almost opened the scoring with a shot from well outside it, as his purely-struck effort cannoned back off Kasper Schmeichel’s post. Leicester were penned right back into their box, and this didn’t appear to be by choice as Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco then missed the easiest effort of the game and Griezmann had a similar fine effort from distance. Atletico were pressing and hounding the English champions all over the pitch, and especially on the wings close to their own goal.
You could see why Leicester were still unwilling to risk coming out so high against that kind of attack so early on, though, by what happened when they did finally venture forward. On 25 minutes, Marc Albrighton at last got free on the left, and fizzed a ball across the box that just eluded Shinji Okazaki. Leicester had a brief flurry where it felt like they might threaten, only for Griezmann to go straight up the other end and force the desperately retreating Albrighton into a rash challenge just at the edge of the box.
Referee Jonas Eriksson pointed to the spot. If that looked a mistake from the official, though, there was no mistake from Griezmann nor a repeat of Schmeichel’s penalty heroics in the last-16 game against Sevilla. The French star sent the keeper the wrong way.
By that point, the only thing that had gone right for Leicester was that they were only 1-0 down.
Atletico actually had well over 60% of the ball, and were greatly enjoying it. That meant that, far from using the lack of possession to conserve energy and then burst in the way they usually do, Leicester were instead struggling to keep up. It told every time they got forward. There was too much of a gap between Vardy and the rest of the attack. Atletico were also far too streetwise in defence to be overly threatened by hopeful balls into the box.
It was still only 1-0, though, and a simple bounce of a ball in an unexpected way could greatly have changed things. That was highlighted on the hour. First, the up-to-then quiet Riyad Mahrez went down in the box just when it looked like he was about to break through. The referee waved play on without booking him as tension momentarily gripped the stadium… just before disbelief took hold. Straight up the other end, Torres did well to get free and set himself up for a certain goal, only to literally set himself up for a fall as he stumbled and the ball soared well wide. In the meantime, the pressure was telling in other ways, as Huth was forced into a foul on Griezmann. The booking keeps him out of the second leg.
It said much that Shakespeare eventually decided to prevent Vardy from suffering similar consequences, as he was taken off after 77 minutes to spare him for that return game. Leicester can look to the scoreline for hope for that. This was not total domination of destruction from Atletico, and the away side did defend well in the second half, but the Spanish side did end the game in total control. It also means they have this tie exactly where they want it.