MADRID: Leicester City have shown a remarkable ability to defy the odds but face their sternest test yet in the Champions League quarter-final against Atletico Madrid, the team they have replaced as European football’s most fashionable underdogs.
Before Leicester enchanted the sporting world last year with their miraculous Premier League title win, Atletico had worked similar wonders in 2014 by breaking the strangehold of Real Madrid and Barcelona in La Liga.
Now the two sides who have punched delightfully above their weight meet in the first leg in Madrid on Wednesday — but it is Leicester who remain the European novices while Atletico have grown into true continental heavyweights under Diego Simeone.
Unlike Leicester, who after their barely believable title win experienced an emphatic downturn in results which ultimately cost coach Claudio Ranieri his job in February, there was no difficult follow-up campaign for Atletico.
Charismatic coach Simeone has gone on to turn Madrid’s ‘other’ team into perennially formidable opponents in his five-year tenure, taking them to two Champions League finals in the last three years and four successive quarter-finals.
Atletico have also hit form just at the right time as they aim to land a first European Cup after losing in three finals (to Real in 2014 and 2016 and to Bayern Munich in 1974), winning five of their last seven games and conceding just two goals.
They held La Liga leaders Real to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu on Saturday.
“The Champions League is the best competition in the world and it always motivates you,” Atletico defender Filipe Luis told reporters on Monday.
“You can really feel the good atmosphere in the team at the moment and we’re feeling very confident after what we have done in our last few games. It’s going to be difficult, but we’re in our best form.”
Yet Leicester are on a similarly hot streak under Craig Shakespeare, who became the only manager alongside Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti to win his first five games in the Premier League after succeeding Ranieri.
The club’s long-time assistant coach also oversaw the team’s elimination of another La Liga side Sevilla in the last 16, the latest of Leicester’s incredible feats in the last 18 months.
Shakespeare’s perfect start ended with Sunday’s 4-2 defeat at Everton when he fielded a heavily-rotated team with one eye clearly on Wednesday’s game, in which they will be without injured captain Wes Morgan.
To keep the fairytale going, Leicester must become the only other team than Real Madrid to beat Atletico in a European knockout tie since 2013 but Simeone’s side have not conceded in their last eight Champions League games at the Vicente Calderon.
“They have incredible fighting spirit, a real team ethic, they work hard work and they have a great counter-attack,” Leicester forward Leonardo Ulloa said in an interview with Spanish daily Marca.
“They have many strong points and are difficult to overcome, which makes them the type of team no-one wants to face.”