The surprise was that anyone was surprised. It may have appeared to a casual observer as though Leicester City were enjoying their best spell of the game, growing into the contest after initially defending, but that was exactly what Atletico Madrid wanted them to think.
Danny Drinkwater, Wilfried Ndidi and Danny Simpson all pushed up the pitch as Leicester enjoyed a spell of possession. They were like gazelles rushing excitedly to a patch of fresh, green, luscious grass while the apex predator lies silent a few feet away.
Atletico rarely enjoy more than three-quarters of possession, but registered 78% of the ball in the first quarter of this first leg. They had eight shots in the first 20 minutes, with Koke hitting Kasper Schmeichel’s post from 25 yards. Fernando Torres, in for the injured Kevin Gameiro, scuffed two shots on target.
When that didn’t provide the breakthrough, Atletico resorted to their age-old trick of cat and mouse. Monaco are the quickest counter-attacking in Europe, but Atletico may lay claim to be the best. This is a team who registered 42% possession in each of their last two home games in La Liga, and won both.
You could not blame Craig Shakespeare’s players for their ambition, even it was eventually exposed as naivety. Pinned back by Atletico in the first stages of their quarter-final first leg, Leicester had only ten touches of the ball in Atletico’s half in the first 15 minutes. Most of those were from Jamie Vardy with no player in blue in passing distance, or via the head of Shinji Okazaki following a long clearance from the back.
And so the trap was set. As Leicester forced a corner and enjoyed a foray into Atletico territory, Diego Simeone was urging Antoine Griezmann not to drop too deep. When possession was won on the edge of their own penalty area, the plan clicked into swift action. One pass took out two Leicester players, and Griezmann was sent free.
The last time Leicester visited this stadium in 1997, they were undone by a controversial penalty. If Shakespeare hoped that karma had a long-term memory, he was disappointed. Marc Albrighton’s grapple of Griezmann was cynical in the extreme, but it took place just outside the penalty area.
Some of the previews to this game focused on the apparently similar nature of these two teams, with Claudio Ranieri revealing that he modelled his Leicester tactics on the extraordinary success of Simeone at the Vicente Calderon. Whilst it is true that both prefer to soak up pressure before hitting teams on the counter, there is a crucial difference in style. Leicester defend with quantity; Atletico defend with quality.
That might sound like a statement of the bleeding obvious given the talent in each squad, but it also demonstrates why Simeone’s strategy is so effective. Atletico are probably the most well-organised defensive team in Europe. Rather than simply pulling players back to help and defending with backs against the wall, each player knows his exact role in thwarting a range of attacks. Diego Godin is magnificent, arguably the best defender in world football.
In contrast, Leicester defended in numbers. That meant that when possession was finally won, ten Leicester players were 35 yards from their goal or closer, with Vardy the only isolated outlet. Vardy had 11 touches of the ball in his 78 minutes, while Leicester managed no shots on target, had one corner and attempted one cross from open play in the second half.
That is not to damn Leicester, their defending or lack of attacking progress in the Calderon, for it has been a wonderful journey and this was far from a disastrous result. Yet the truth is that at the King Power next week, Simeone will be in his element. Leicester will have to attack, and that is exactly how Atletico like it. There is no better team in Europe with a 1-0 lead.
Atletico have now conceded one goal in their last ten Champions League home games, to Sardar Azmoun of FC Rostov in a 2-1 win in September. They have not conceded a home goal in the knock-out stages since March 2014, Kaka for Milan in a 4-1 defeat. This victory made it nine without concession.
Atletico do not just rise to the biggest stage, they own it. With Barcelona and Bayern Munich likely to exit the competition, Simeone will have his eyes on European football’s biggest prize. If defences win Champions Leagues as well as championships, there is none better than the house that Diego built.