Foxes tackle underdogs turned big boys

Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann (right) and defender Filipe Luis in training. The team may have to seize the initiative, being the home side.
Atletico forward Antoine Griezmann (right) and defender Filipe Luis in training. The team may have to seize the initiative, being the home side.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

MADRID • Leicester 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 the Foxes enchanted the sporting world last year with their miraculous English Premier League title win, Atletico had worked similar wonders in 2014 by breaking the stranglehold of Real Madrid and Barcelona in the Spanish Primera Liga.

Now the two sides meet in the first leg at the Vicente Calderon Stadium in Madrid today - but it is Leicester who remain the European novices, while Atletico have grown into true continental heavyweights under coach Diego Simeone.

Atletico have made two Champions League finals in the last three years under the Argentinian and have hit form just at the right time.

They have won five of their last seven games, while conceding just two goals.

Leicester are on a similarly hot streak under Craig Shakespeare, who won his first five games in the Premier League after succeeding Claudio Ranieri.

The club's long-time assistant coach also oversaw the team's elimination of another LaLiga 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 by Everton when he fielded a heavily rotated team with one eye clearly on today's game, in which they will be without injured captain Wes Morgan.

The two sides' similarities do not end there. Both are most dangerous on the counter-attack and can be content to sit deep.

Atletico held LaLiga leaders and neighbours Real to a 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu on Saturday despite having just 39 per cent of the ball. But as hosts, they might have to force the issue more today.

"Maybe for us, we can play better against these teams, Barcelona and Real Madrid, because they have the ball and they control the game, but when we have to initiate the style of play it's not going to be easy," said Atletico left-back Filipe Luis.

Still, Simeone's side have not conceded in their last eight Champions League games at home.

"They have incredible fighting spirit, a real team ethic, they work hard and they have a great counter-attack," Leicester striker Leonardo Ulloa told 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."


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 12, 2017, with the headline 'Foxes tackle underdogs turned big boys'. Print Edition | Subscribe