LEICESTER, England – Atletico Madrid reached the Champions League semifinals for the third time in four seasons by ending Leicester’s fairytale European journey on Tuesday, drawing 1-1 at the King Power Stadium to advance 2-1 on aggregate.
Once Atletico grabbed an away goal through Saul Niguez’s first-half header, any hopes of the English champions extending their debut in Europe’s elite competition seemed to be completely extinguished.
Especially since Atletico was looking technically superior, attacking with greater skill and potency and outplaying the European novices.
And yet the spirit that powered Leicester to a remarkable Premier League title triumph returned in the second half as a tactical switch to by caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare from 4-4-2 to 3-5-2 put Leicester firmly back in the game. The subdued atmosphere was lifted by Jamie Vardy’s 61st-minute strike, but leveling the score on a chilly central England night wasn’t sufficient.
A defense as sturdy as Atletico’s wasn’t going to allow Leicester to score the two goals it still required to go through as a succession of shots were intercepted.
“We were definitely in the ascendancy,” Vardy said. “We brought Leo (Leonardo Ulloa at halftime) on to cause an aerial threat and it started paying dividends for us. They are probably used to playing teams who keep possession more, so we were going direct.”
The tactic certainly made life difficult for Atletico.
“It was almost a pleasure to compete against them,” Atletico coach Diego Simeone said through a translator. “They never gave up for one minute. They didn’t let their heads drop. We lived in fear all night.”
England’s last Champions League representatives went out with a fight exactly eight years to the day since Leicester began its dazzling ascent by clinching the third-tier title, with the exhausted players collapsing the turf at the final whistle after pressing with grit and directness.
Leicester, which is 12th in the Premier League and not sure of survival, now faces up to the reality that it could be many years before the team can contemplate a return to the Champions League. Atletico will focus on trying to land the prize the keeps eluding Simeone. It was a finalist in both 2014 and 2016 but beaten by Real Madrid on both occasion, while a constant contender for the Spanish title.
“I wanted to make life hard for every team we played,” said Simeone, who has been in charge since 2011. “It’s satisfying now to say we are a competitive outfit.”
Real could thwart Simeone’s ambitions again.
Atletico’s neighbor also reached to the semifinals on Tuesday, with Cristiano Ronaldo scoring a hat trick in a 4-2 victory over Bayern Munich after extra time that clinched a 6-3 aggregate win. The semifinal lineup will be completed on Wednesday when Barcelona hosts Juventus and Monaco faces Borussia Dortmund.
For Leicester, Tuesday felt like a closing of a chapter, and the buildup to the quarterfinal felt like that with the theatrics. The seats were covered in foil flags in blue, silver and gold for fans to hoist, while canons of dry ice were set off steam from the stadium roof.
Leicester, though, was blown away from kickoff by the sharper, vastly more experienced visitors, featuring nine starters from last year’s final loss.
Antione Griezmann, whose controversial first-leg penalty had given Atletico the edge, was a constant menace. Not only gliding past defenders but also when tracking back on defensive duties of his own – disrupting the advance of Riyad Mahrez in one early intervention.
Leicester was finding pockets of space to attack but it allowed Niguez to score far too easily in the 26th minute, with the midfielder left unmarked to meet Filipe Luis’s cross. Vardy was the closest Leicester player to Niguez as the header beat Kasper Schmeichel.
Ulloa came on at halftime with Ben Chilwell, whose impact was more immediate. Two efforts went over the crossbar, first from a dipping volley and then a header, before the left wingback created the equalizer. A shot was intercepted by central defender Stefan Savic and the loose ball fell for Vardy to power into the net.
It was the seventh goal for the revitalized Vardy in the 10 games under Shakespeare.
It lifted the subdued atmosphere, belief returned to the stadium that was scene of such unexpected euphoria. But the home fans couldn’t will the ball into the net as Ulloa had a shot blocked on the line, Vardy struck straight at Savic and Mahrez angled a strike over the top.
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