Atlético Madrid drew 1-1 with Leicester City at King Power Stadium on Tuesday to advance to the Champions League semifinals 2-1 on aggregate. Here are five observations from the match, made both in a vacuum and with an eye toward the upcoming weeks.
- The Foxes had more of the ball, and Atlético made them pay. If you’ll recall, the mattress makers registered 68 percent possession in the first leg last Wednesday and only notched a slim win despite outclassing their opposition. On Tuesday, predictably, the tide turned, as Leicester needed to attack and tried to chase an early goal. But Atlético flipped the tables through Saúl Ñíguez - the team’s closer in European competition - and essentially ended the tie there.
Leicester finished with 56 percent possession for the second leg and outshot Atlético 22-6. But aside from a scramble in the box which led to Jamie Vardy’s goal on the hour, the Foxes could not find a way through despite a massive shots advantage, as Atleti were content to let the hosts take shot after shot, followed by clearance after clearance (shouts out to José Giménez, Diego Godín and Stefan “21” Savić). In other words, Leicester got Leicester’d.
Speaking of Giménez...
- Giménez was gigantic and can do a job in midfield. There can’t be much argument that this was the best game Giménez has ever played, considering the circumstances and the recital he gave. Diego Simeone put the 22-year-old in the spotlight after Atlético beat Osasuna on Saturday, saying he would have a role to play in battening down the hatches at King Power. And he played quite the role indeed.
Joséma was the presence in midfield from the start - and in central defense when he was moved back there later in the second half. He made, per WhoScored, a whopping 16 clearances, won 12 aerial duels, recorded seven tackles and six interceptions. The Uruguayan also settled down a bouncing ball to begin the passing move that culminated in Saúl’s goal. He was simply incredible, and Simeone displayed again his knockout football acumen by slotting him into Tuesday’s XI.
I mentioned Saúl, and while we’re on the subject:
- Saúl’s big-game rep grows larger. The man who has literally peed blood in defense of Atlético’s colors always seems to revel the bright lights of the Champions League. Last season, Saúl scored the goal of the tournament in the semifinals against Bayern Munich, and prior to Tuesday, he’d scored a winning goal at PSV and a golazo at Bayer Leverkusen in this year’s competition.
After he starred defensively in the first leg of this tie, this 22-year-old on Tuesday further bolstered a resume that doesn’t need a ton of bolstering. His powerful, bouncing header from a Filipe Luís cross gave Atleti the lead on 26 minutes. Saúlito’s goal was his third of this UCL campaign (all away from the Vicente Calderón, making them even more important) and his sixth of this season. And it effectively ended the tie, even as Leicester piled on the attempts in the second half.
- Atlético may have a full back problem... Juanfran and Filipe Luís both had to leave early Tuesday with separate injuries. Juanfran departed before the hour with a quad issue, while Filipe trudged off with an injury to the fourth metacarpal in his right hand. Savić had to slide over to right back - where he didn’t do too well - while Giménez, Godín and Lucas Hernández made up the rest of the back four.
Filipe will be the quickest to return as he sustained a hand injury, and with protection he will be back for Espanyol on Saturday. But Juanfran is set to miss the next couple weeks, and with Šime Vrsaljko still on the mend from a partially torn ACL, Simeone could be in for a selection headache this weekend - and perhaps longer.
- ...but have made a third semifinal in four years anyway. Fair play to Leicester. The Foxes gave absolutely everything and didn’t go away until the very last whistle. They deserved to be in a quarterfinal and it is an experience that their fans (who put on quite the pre-game display) will never forget. But over the 180 minutes, Atlético were the better side and underscored that by getting the all-important away goal in less than half an hour on Tuesday.
Before Friday’s semifinal draw - where we know Atlético will draw Real Madrid - let’s take a moment to reflect on the club making Europe’s final four for the third time in four years. The fact that this has become the norm for a team like Atleti is remarkable. At this time 15 years ago, Atleti were about to win promotion from Segunda, and now are about to compete in yet another Champions League semifinal as the chase for that elusive European Cup rolls on. It’s incredible. Don’t forget these moments.