|Champions League quarter-final first leg: Atletico Madrid v Leicester|
|Date: Wednesday, 12 April Venue: Vicente Calderon Stadium Kick-off: 19:45 BST|
|Coverage: Live commentary on BBC Radio 5 live, plus text updates on the BBC Sport website and app|
Premier League champions Leicester City are aiming to prolong their fairytale as they head into this week’s Champions League quarter-finals, but they are heavy underdogs against an in-form Atletico Madrid team who have reached the final twice in the past three years.
Here BBC Sport explains exactly what the Foxes must do to defy the odds once again.
Match Atletico’s motivation
It has regularly been suggested that Leicester have focused on the Champions League at the expense of their Premier League campaign, but they will be hard pushed to match the motivation of an Atletico team who have more reason than anyone to chase success on the European stage.
Losing two finals in three years was extremely hard for Atletico to take, especially as both were against bitter rivals Real Madrid and could have very easily yielded a different outcome: the 2014 final was decided in extra time after Real equalised deep in stoppage time, and last season’s went to a penalty shootout.
Manager Diego Simeone came close to leaving the club after the agony of last year’s loss, admitting he did not know whether he would be able to muster the energy and passion to recover from such soul-destroying disappointment.
But, after a summer he has since described as “mourning”, he elected to stay, and the Argentine is looking more intense than ever in his fierce pursuit of the only trophy he has not won since rejoining a club he had previously played for.
Although they have never explicitly stated it, there is a strong sense Atletico have collectively prioritised the Champions League this season, focusing their considerable energies on giving themselves another opportunity to secure the trophy that has so cruelly eluded them in recent years.
Defender Juanfran, whose penalty shootout miss gave Real the trophy last season, has expressed his belief that skipper Gabi will lift the trophy with a sense of sheer certainty that goes way beyond the optimism usually exuded by players.
Atletico do not merely think they can win the trophy; they appear to know they will. This time they are determined to leave nothing to chance, and Leicester’s task in overcoming that furiously purposeful intent cannot be overestimated.
Stop Griezmann, stop Atletico
By far Atletico’s likeliest match-winner is striker Antoine Griezmann, who has made stunning progress since joining the club from Real Sociedad in 2014 and now surely deserves to be regarded as one of the very best players in the world.
|La Liga’s top five scorers|
|Player||Goals||Assists||Conversion rate||Shooting accuracy||Mins per goal|
|Ronaldo (Real Madrid)||19||6||13.97%||45.37%||111|
|Aspas (Celta Vigo)||16||3||24.24%||58.18%||127|
Thanks to his rapid development under Simeone, the 26-year-old is the complete package. He is versatile, capable of playing through the middle or on either flank. He is fast, skilful, decent in the air, a good passer, possesses a velvet-smooth first touch and intelligent movement. In short, he does everything well and some things superbly.
Those qualities have helped Griezmann score 23 goals in all competitions this season, including four in the Champions League and a late leveller in Saturday’s morale-boosting Madrid derby draw at the Bernabeu.
But the importance of the Frenchman’s contribution cannot be measured by statistics alone, because his team-first mentality and relentless work-rate make him an ideal fit for this Atletico side, and his elusiveness will make life very uncomfortable for a Foxes backline missing skipper Wes Morgan.
The silver lining for the English team, however, is that Griezmann’s preferred strike partner and fellow Frenchman Kevin Gameiro looks likely to miss at least the first leg with a hamstring strain.
Gameiro was initially slow to settle after joining Atletico from Sevilla last summer, but he has improved since the turn of the year and produced his best performance yet to torment Bayer Leverkusen in the first leg of the last-16 tie.
He was injured during the recent international break and will probably be replaced by old warhorse Fernando Torres, who is still hard-working but far more limited than Gameiro, and increasingly inaccurate, with just seven goals this season and none in his past six outings.
Penetrate one of the world’s finest defences
Leicester’s task at the other end of the field is no more straightforward, because they somehow have to breach an Atletico defence which is arguably the best in the world – especially when it really matters.
If you think that’s an exaggeration, how about this for a statistic: Atletico have not conceded a single goal in their past eight home knockout ties.
The last visiting player to score at the Vicente Calderon in a tie in the last 16 or later was Kaka in AC Milan’s 4-1 loss in March 2014, and Leicester’s challenge is to succeed where Chelsea, Barcelona (twice), Real Madrid and Bayern Munich have all failed.
In addition to the brilliant collective discipline and organisation instilled by Simeone, two players are chiefly responsible for Atletico’s defensive excellence.
Firstly, there’s Uruguayan central defender Diego Godin, an old-fashioned, hard-nosed stopper who sometimes appears to enjoy conceding throw-ins and corners because it gives him the chance to make yet another clearance.
And the second star of the backline is Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak, recruited from Benfica in the summer of 2014 with the significant task of filling the gloves of Thibaut Courtois. He has more than answered that call to become one of the game’s top keepers, equalling an all-time La Liga record last season by conceding just 18 goals in 38 league outings.
Outwit master tactician Simeone
Craig Shakespeare has certainly made an impressive start to his managerial career, but the Foxes boss faces by far his biggest challenge as he confronts the fearsome Simeone.
The ex-Argentina midfielder has won almost everything there is to win since taking over at Atletico in late 2011, and he has done it by giving his team a clear vision of how they should play.
Simeone is able to maximise his team’s strengths and minimise their weaknesses by combining motivation with organisation, creating a true team structure where every player pulls in the same direction and has a clear understanding of their precise role.
Tactically, he generally prefers a 4-4-2 formation but also regularly employs a 4-3-3 or a 4-5-1. He is similarly versatile in his style of play, with Atletico equally capable of pushing high up the pitch and dominating possession, or sitting deep and waiting to strike on the counter-attack.
Whichever approach he takes, Simeone is a master at achieving balance. The 10 outfield players move together like clockwork, hardly ever allowing themselves to become stretched or shapeless, and always ensuring every player is supported rather than isolated both with and without the ball.
The Argentine has summed up his tactical beliefs by stating that, whereas other coaches like to control the ball, he attempts to control the space.
He has been implementing that deep-thinking philosophy with great success at Atletico for more than five years and, for an opposing manager with just seven games and one Champions League match to his name, confronting Simeone’s meticulously prepared team will present a major test.
Master the midfield battle
Griezmann might be the star while Oblak and Godin form the immovable barrier, but the motor of Atletico’s machine is their midfield trio of Gabi, Koke and Saul.
Lion-hearted captain Gabi and understated playmaker Koke, in particular, have been key elements of Simeone’s masterplan ever since he took over, with the duo barely missing a game during the past five years and providing the perfect link between defence and attack.
Saul is the most individually gifted player of the three, with his goals against Bayern Munich in last season’s semi-final and Bayer Leverkusen in February among the finest individual efforts the competition has seen in recent years.
From a tactical perspective, the fact Simeone’s midfield trio occupy very narrow positions is important, allowing them to protect the penalty area in defence and create space for full-backs Juanfran and Filipe Luis to come forward in attack.
More generally, their defensive diligence and unselfish willingness to do the dirty work without complaint allows them to epitomise the qualities Simeone demands from his team.
Their vast experience also speaks volumes about the scale of the task awaiting Leicester, with Gabi, Koke and Saul making a combined total of nearly 150 appearances in continental competitions under Simeone, during which time they have won five different trophies.
That statistic makes it abundantly clear just how strong Atletico are. They have been here many times before, they know exactly how they want to play, and they know exactly how they can win… against any opposition.
The question now is whether Leicester can do anything to stop them.