In simple terms, Leicester City’s 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final wasn’t enough for them. That’s because they lost the first leg 1-0, meaning that the Spanish side won 2-1 on aggregate and now progress to the final four of Europe’s biggest club tournament. Yet there was nonetheless something impressive about Leicester. Atletico manager Diego Simeone seemed to see it. He not only made a point of enthusiastically shaking the hands of Leicester’s players upon the final whistle, but also claimed, in the post-match, that the Foxes had Atletico ‘living in fear’ in the closing stages.
Perhaps the most pleasing aspect of this, from a Leicester point of view, was that the club made the necessary adjustments during the match in order to get back into it. They were, in truth, pretty uninspired in the opening 45 minutes, but there were still a couple of glimpses to suggest that they could offer something more. Those glimpses tended to come about when Riyad Mahrez drifted in from the right-hand side to take up more central locations, and when last season’s Premier League hero floated infield to slide a ball in behind for Jamie Vardy, the evidence was just starting to build. Vardy then followed up with a lovely cutback for Shinji Okazaki, and even though the Japanese couldn’t get his shot on target, it was obvious that Leicester needed more of this.
Minutes later, Mahrez again picked up the ball infield, this time in a right-of-centre location, before breezing by Atletico left-back Filipe Luis and playing another through ball in behind the opposition backline. Vardy found himself offside this time around, but there could be no doubt that Leicester needed to get the ball to Mahrez more often and in these kinds of spaces, too. In the first half, their 4-4-2 formation didn’t allow them to do this, with a lot of staid side-to-side passing permeating their play, but manager Craig Shakespeare set about changing this at the interval.
He asked his players to shake things up, to move into a sort of 3-4-3 formation that featured a couple of personnel changes. Leonardo Ulloa and Ben Chilwell came on for Okazaki and Yohan Benalouane, two changes designed to give Leicester a different look in attack as they pushed to get back into the tie. At this point, they were 1-0 on the night after Saul Niguez scored with a brilliant first-half header, meaning they were 2-0 down on aggregate. In simple terms, the shifts in shape and personnel gave Leicester more options. They could move the ball smoothly along the flanks, into the feet of wingbacks Chilwell and Marc Albrighton, and they could also launch longer balls forward into the air space surrounding Ulloa. What really got them going, though, was the fact that Mahrez played more centrally.
The team were now operating with Ulloa as their primary centre-forward, with Mahrez and Vardy sitting both high up and to either side of him. That meant the Algerian international could more regularly operate in the half-spaces between the lines, and when he whipped in a dangerous ball just minutes after the restart, it became clear that Shakespeare had made some positive adjustments.
During sequences of Leicester’s second-half build-up play, which was much more frictionless than that which they displayed prior to half-time, Mahrez acted as facilitator. He floated into pockets between the lines in order to draw opposition players before quickly shifting the play back out towards the wingbacks. In the lead-up to Leicester’s 61st minute equaliser, for instance, Mahrez did exactly this. He received a short pass from Ulloa in that now-familiar right-of-centre position, and once he’d dribbled a couple of steps closer to the touchline, he distributed possession to an onrushing Albrighton. The Englishman, now played at right-wingback, crossed the ball with intent, and when his effort curled over the back to Chilwell, the youngster shot at goal. His effort ricocheted off the Atletico defence and back into the path of Vardy, and with a neat hit into the far corner, Leicester were back on level terms.
The Foxes were, however, still behind in overall terms, so they continued to push. Their changes were working for them, and although the play through the wingbacks was excellent, they quickly settled on an alternative to keep Atletico guessing. That alternative was their Argentinian frontman, and when Leicester played long aerials balls into Ulloa, there was always a sense that Vardy and Mahrez could feed off him. Again, Leicester created a lot of chances in this manner, but the best unquestionably arrived just minutes after their equaliser.
Here, as the ball floated towards the head of Ulloa, Mahrez and Vardy started to circle at his feet. They were ready to feed off the scraps, and when Mahrez realised the ball was a little too high for Ulloa, he made his move. He ran in behind Luis and the Atletico backline, sprinting at speed in order to track down a ball that otherwise would’ve propelled itself out of bounds. He got there just in time, cutting the ball back into the centre with a first-time volley. Its accuracy was such that Vardy could steady himself and take a massive swing at it, but despite a solid connection and a shot that would’ve found the back of the net, Stefan Savic made a vital block to keep Atletico in the ascendancy.
Mahrez also produced a lovely cross on the back of a second-half counter-attack, so all in all, he looked most likely to be Leicester’s difference-maker. Even in the final stages, as the game powered into stoppage time, Mahrez was still doing his best to keep Leicester’s momentum up. He managed a neat little dribble and pass to free up Albrighton along the right-hand side, but once the wingback’s late cross was cleared away by Savic, it became clear that Leicester weren’t going to get the result they needed.
Even so, they were superb in the second period of play. They bombarded Atletico and, in the sense that they battled right until the final whistle, the players were Leicester-esque in the best possible way. The fans loved it and so too did Simeone. “They never gave up for one minute,” the Atletico boss asserted. “They didn’t let their heads drop. We were living in fear all night of what they might achieve. They pushed us all the way.”
Shakespeare’s shifts were central to that and, as Simeone went onto mention, they made it tough for Atletico to hang onto their lead. “The changes they made were fantastic,” he said. “They managed to get lots of players down the wings, in order to get the ball in high, lots of crosses to Ulloa which caused us problems.” Those problems came in the form of 19 second-half shots, a number of which were either near misses or outright excellent opportunities.
Plenty of players contributed to this onslaught, but as has so often been the case throughout the course of Leicester’s recent successes, Mahrez was at the heart of most of it. He and his teammates didn’t get the outcome they were after, but the fact that their fans gave them yet another standing ovation after the match spoke to the quality of what they had just produced.
This was yet another spirited display in a long list of those over the past couple of seasons, and another one of which the club can be proud.