The dream is over. A 1-1 draw at home to Atletico Madrid was not enough for Leicester City to progress to the semi-finals of the Champions League, with the Spanish side’s single-goal victory in last week’s first leg carrying them through on aggregate.
The Foxes may have exited the competition, but they did so with their heads held high. There were times on Tuesday night when Atletico threatened to run away with it, particularly as Antoine Griezmann, Saul Niguez, Koke and Yannick Ferreira Carrasco combined in the first half; Diego Simeone’s charges are seeking to reach their third final in four years, and there were moments at the King Power Stadium when they showed exactly why they are one of the best teams on the continent.
Atletico headed to the East Midlands with a slender lead behind him. Both sides, unusually, seemed content with the 1-0 scoreline at the midway point of the tie: Atletico because they had avoided conceding an away goal at the Vicente Calderon, Leicester because they had not been blown away in the first leg. Simeone’s men clearly began Tuesday’s encounter as heavy favourites to advance, but if the last couple of years have taught us anything it is that the usual logic does not really apply to Leicester.
Atletico started the stronger of the two teams, pushing full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis up the pitch in an attempt to double their aggregate advantage early on. Captain Gabi and Jose Gimenez, a surprise selection in the centre of midfield, took up more conservative positions in order to protect the back four, while Saul and Koke drifted infield to link up with front pairing Griezmann and Carrasco.
The visitors’ early pressure paid off in the 26th minute, when Saul powered a tremendous header past Kasper Schmeichel and into the far corner of the net. It was a terrific piece of technique from a player who is no stranger to impressive goals in the Champions League – the Spaniard’s effort against Bayern Munich in last year’s edition of the tournament was one of the best in recent seasons – and put Atletico in a commanding position with less than three-quarters of the game left to play.
Leicester, knowing that three goals were now required to turn the quarter-final around – a daunting task against any opponent, let alone one with the defensive resolve of Atletico Madrid – could easily have wilted at their point. Instead, they switched to three at the back, sent on Leonardo Ulloa and gave it a good go in front of a raucous home crowd.
Jamie Vardy pulled one back shortly after the hour-mark, converting from close range after Ben Chilwell’s shot was blocked. Atletico threw bodies in the way of subsequent strikes from Ulloa and Vardy that looked to be destined for the back of the net, while Diego Godin and Stefan Savic stood up strong to an aerial bombardment which encompassed free-kicks, corners, long throws and open-play crosses.
Despite their considerable experience and expertise, there were times when Atletico were sent scrambling by a Leicester side relatively low on quality but high on character. Ultimately, though, the battle-hardened likes of Godin, Gabin and Savic were in their element, and the Foxes slowly realised that this was one step too far.
“Disappointment obviously to go out but immensely proud of the performance,” Craig Shakespeare told reporters when asked for his emotions after the game.
“I thought we gave it a really good shot against an excellent team. Their history speaks for itself – finalists in two of the last three years. We still felt we were in the tie from the first leg, we had a right go tonight but we’ve just failed at the last hurdle.
“I hope the benefit is they [Leicester’s players] want some more of it. They’re very disappointed in there but I said they can be proud of what they achieved. They should want more of this, all players want to play at the highest level, which the Champions League is. But we have to get back to winning ways in the Premier League now.”
The dream is over. But what a journey it has been.