Atletico Madrid v Leicester City: Spanish giants not taking English upstarts for granted
■ Uefa Champions League: Atletico Madrid v Leicester City, Wednesday at 10.45pm on BeIN Sports
It has the makings of a quiz question in years to come: Who were the eight Uefa Champions League quarter-finalists in 2016/17?
There should be no prizes for naming the perennials of Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich, few for identifying Borussia Dortmund and Juventus. If Leonardo Jardim’s precocious Monaco side break up, they may have the potential to fool future guessers.
And then there is the key to getting the answer right, the unglamorous interlopers in Europe’s most elite private party: Leicester City.
If they are in improbable company, so is the caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare, now in a select group with Zinedine Zidane, Luis Enrique, Carlo Ancelotti and tonight’s opponent Diego Simeone.
The relentlessly driven Argentine is the biggest reason for Atletico’s rise. He developed the Leicester blueprint long before Claudio Ranieri: play 4-4-2, counter-attack, focus on set pieces, forge a formidable unity and prosper because of an underdog mentality.
“They are a bit like us in the way they play,” Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann said. “They have a similar spirit to us.”
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Now, as Atletico pursue a third appearance in the final in four seasons, their excellence has given them the status of favourites.
Leicester would have been outsiders whoever they faced, but there is the sense that this is the worst possible draw for them. Atletico’s scrappers seem too streetwise to fall into Leicester’s trap. “In many aspects they are similar to us,” Simeone said.
Except that an examination of even Leicester’s supposed trump cards suggests their Atletico counterparts are superior: Simeone to Shakespeare in the dugout, Jan Oblak to Kasper Schmeichel in goal, Yannick Carrasco to Riyad Mahrez on the right wing, Griezmann to Jamie Vardy in attack.
Atletico have shown few signs they will repeat the mistakes the Premier League’s title challengers did last season when they underestimated Leicester. Instead, they are talking up their opponents.
Full-back Filipe Luis compared Vardy and Mahrez to his former Chelsea teammates Diego Costa and Eden Hazard.
But Atletico boast arguably Europe’s best defence. In contrast, Leicester are without Wes Morgan, a back injury keeping the captain out of the biggest game in their history.
His leadership may still be a factor if he delivers a team talk in the dressing room before, but Yohan Benalouane made for an inadequate deputy in Sunday’s 4-2 defeat at Everton.
The Tunisian’s set-play struggles represent one worry, the movement of the elusive Griezmann – who has six goals in his last eight games – another, especially as Leicester are set to play without the ball.
They are the lowest scorers and the side with the least possession – just 40 per cent, ranking them 27th of the 32 teams in the group stages – of those left in the competition.
On the other side of the equation, Schmeichel, who missed the 5-0 defeat to Porto, has only conceded two goals so far in the Champions League and saved penalties in each leg of the last-16 win over Sevilla.
Past English overachievers in the Champions League have been inspired by in-form goalkeepers, whether Liverpool’s Jerzy Dudek or Chelsea’s Petr Cech. Leicester would not have progressed this far without the son of a European Cup-winning father.
Schmeichel has been a catalyst for revival and a major reason why Leicester have won all six matches when Shakespeare has fielded his strongest available side, having lost his first match as manager in the 4-2 defeat to Everton on Sunday. They will not be soft touches.
A compelling tie will also be attritional.
“Ours will not be a nice match to watch on the television,” Griezmann said last week. “It will be tough with both sides putting in a lot of work.”
But then hard work is the secret to the success of both of these teams.
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Updated: April 11, 2017 04:00 AM