Leicester ready to chase Atlético Madrid and a place in Champions League semis

Stuart James

To put into perspective the size of the task facing Leicester City, Atlético Madrid have eliminated Bayern Munich, Barcelona (twice), Chelsea, Milan, Bayer Leverkusen (twice) and PSV Eindhoven in the Champions League across the past three years. Diego Simeone’s team have reached two finals since 2014 and the only club to have got the better of them outside of the group stage during that period is Real Madrid.

Leicester, in short, have got their work cut out and it will take something truly special to turn this Champions League quarter-final around, bearing in mind Atlético go into the game with a 1-0 lead, courtesy of Antoine Griezmann’s contentious penalty in Madrid, and the fact that the Spanish club have gone through in the last 16 European ties in which they have won the first leg.

The odds are stacked against Leicester in that sense, as is so often the case, and Craig Shakespeare smiled when it was pointed out to him that the bookmakers have Atlético at 1-10 to reach the semi‑finals. “They’ve got it wrong in the past, so let’s hope they’ve got it wrong again,” Leicester’s manager said, alluding to the Premier League title that the East Midlands club won last season despite starting the campaign as 5,000-1 outsiders. “We know we’ll start as underdogs because of the history of Madrid but we’re comfortable with that. Let’s hope we can earn people a few bob.”

The good news for Leicester is that Wes Morgan is almost certain to start, softening the blow that Robert Huth is ruled out through suspension. Morgan has missed the last six matches with a back problem but has come through three training sessions without reporting any discomfort. Shakespeare will make a final decision on Tuesday morning but everything points to the Leicester captain returning and partnering Yohan Benalouane in central defence. “I think with the type of injury he’s had – a back and a nerve problem – you just want to make sure 100% that there is no reaction,” Shakespeare said. “But my eyes tell me that we both should be fairly pleased with how he’s come through.”

Keeping a clean sheet would appear to hold the key to Leicester’s prospects of progressing, although that will be easier said than done against arguably the best counter-attacking team in Europe, especially as the onus is on the champions to take the game to Atlético. It will be a difficult balancing act for Shakespeare’s players to get right on an occasion when the adrenaline is sure to be pumping, prompting the manager to call for “cool, smart heads”.

“We’re in the tie. We need to make sure offensively we create more, we’ve got to get a goal back, but by the same token we need to be mindful of players of the ilk of Griezmann,” Shakespeare said. “We’re at home, so we need to be more forceful than we were [away], but respectful of the opposition as well.”

Leicester failed to register a shot on target in Madrid, where Jamie Vardy was isolated to such an extent that he attempted only two passes, and it would be naive to think that everything will open up for the English club now that they are playing Atlético at home. Simeone’s side are experts at suffocating the life out of opponents and have kept seven clean sheets in their past nine matches.

Just as significantly in the context of this tie, Atlético have not lost any of their previous 21 Champions League away games by more than one goal. “They have a great defensive record, especially in Europe,” Shakespeare added. “But we know what we’ve got to do, we can’t sit back for 90 minutes as we’ve got to score.”

Records, of course, are there to be broken and Leicester have form for that kind of thing. Last season’s Premier League title is the obvious place to start and belongs in a folder marked “footballing miracles”. More recently, few people gave them much hope of getting beyond the last-16 stage of this competition when they were drawn against a Sevilla side that had won the Europa League three years in succession.

A 2-0 win against Jorge Sampaoli’s team at home did the trick and a repeat of that scoreline against Atlético will be enough to send Leicester through to the Champions League semi-finals at the expense of the club that has eliminated them in two of their previous three European campaigns, in 1961 and 1997.

Not that this tie is about revenge for Leicester. There is a much bigger picture for a group of players that are in once-in-a-lifetime territory given the prize that is on offer. “This is something very special to us,” Christian Fuchs, Leicester’s left‑back, said. “We are the small Leicester City playing in the Champions League, being in the quarter-finals is outstanding and we just enjoy the time we have. We might never be here again.”

If the second leg against Sevilla is anything to go by, it promises to be quite an atmosphere inside the King Power Stadium for what is the biggest game in Leicester’s history. Shakespeare hopes that his players can feed off that energy and create another piece of history in their remarkable story. “We’re not here to make the numbers up,” Leicester’s manager said. “We’re here to have a right go.”

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