Leicester fight back but Griezmann a class above as Atletico advance in UCL
LEICESTER, England -- Three thoughts from the 1-1 draw between Leicester and Atletico Madrid at the King Power Stadium, which sees Diego Simeone's side advance to the UEFA Champions League semifinals 2-1 on aggregate.
1. Atleti advance to Champions League semifinals
It was fun while it lasted. England's most remarkable Champions League quarterfinalists are out of the competition after drawing 1-1 on Tuesday and losing 2-1 to Atletico Madrid on aggregate. But as they have done so often in this season's competition, Leicester looked like they belonged.
A goal just before half-time from Saul Niguez made Leicester's task ultimately impossible -- that brilliant header meaning they required three goals to move on. While they gained some parity through Jamie Vardy, scoring in a period of play when Leicester looked like they would complete the most unlikely of comebacks, in the end there was too much to do.
The game started in the sort of frantic fashion you'd expect from these two teams, but there was little pattern to the opening exchanges. In fact, there wasn't really a proper chance for either side until 20 minutes had passed, when Shinji Okazaki poked a cross just wide at the near post.
Leicester had opened up the visitors a couple of times, but it was Atletico who took the lead in the 26th minute. Filipe Luis was allowed too much time on the left to cross, which he did by skimming a ball to the back post, where Saul was similarly afforded excessive space to place a superb header into the bottom corner of the net from about 10 yards out. After a bright start in which they probably should have taken the lead, Leicester were left with the task of scoring three goals in a little over an hour. As that's the same number that Simeone's side had conceded in their previous nine games, it was a tall order. From the goal to the break, Atletico looked imperious, dominating with a swagger that suggested the night could get ugly for Leicester.
But a tactical switch after half-time brought Leicester back into the game. Ben Chilwell and Leonardo Ulloa came on, and they moved to a 3-5-2, which seemed to limit the space available to the Atletico players and present a completely different problem for the visiting defence up front. Just after the hour mark, they were level on the night, as Vardy lashed home a loose ball in the area after Chilwell had mishit a shot. The noise inside the stadium, which had dissipated a little from the frantic excitement of the early stages, reached bone-shaking levels.
Leicester's tactic of flinging balls into the box and seeing what pieces could be picked up wasn't especially sophisticated, but it was certainly shrewd, and for a while effective. On occasions, the Atletico defence -- sually rock solid and drum tight -- looked panicked by the onslaught.
Leicester hammered away at the La Liga defence but couldn't break through. Eventually, Atletico regained some semblance of control and held on. Leicester are out but not disgraced.
2. Griezmann conducts, closes down brilliantly
You didn't really need to watch this game to conclude that Antoine Griezmann is a good player. You could just look at the numbers if you like: 24 goals this season already is pretty solid going for a player who isn't strictly a traditional centre-forward. You could also mull over the testimonials, that pretty much every club with a decent-sized bank account will be sniffing around him this summer.
But watching this game would provide confirmation to anyone who didn't know the other information that the France international is one of the world's class performers. At points, Griezmann conducted things in an almost stately fashion, simultaneously doing all the chasing and running required of anyone in a Simeone side, while also carrying the air of a man who thought it beneath him to play against this rabble.
There was a moment early in the second half when he got the ball on the right and burned past a huffing collection of about four defenders with a visceral burst of pace. Not many things in modern football make the observer gasp, but that piece of skill and athleticism was one of them. It was as if the Leicester players were on skateboards and he was driving a Bugatti Veyron.
Griezmann combines a delicate touch with a relentless pressing style that makes him the ideal modern player, but his movement is always calculated and his energy is rarely wasted. In the same way that a wise old stager like Zlatan Ibrahimovic and, these days, Cristiano Ronaldo, has the experience to know when to move and where, Griezmann selects his runs with a wisdom beyond his 26 years.
What a player.
3. Leicester make life too easy in first half
At points during this match, particularly in the time between Atletico's opener and half-time, this looked like a training session for the La Liga side. It was the sort of exhibition that might put losing to this team firmly in the "no disgrace" category, and it served to emphasise the gap in class between the two clubs.
But while one could simply view this as a better team prevailing, there was a sense that Leicester made life too easy for Atletico in the first half. They gave them far too much time and space to shift the ball around and pick out holes in their defence, occasionally standing off their opponents as if they were merely invited to watch, rather than take part.
Koke, Griezmann, Gabi and the rest of the Atletico brain trust were allowed to knock the ball around at will and essentially control the pace of the game. The surprise was that they were not further ahead at the break.
That changed with some gusto in the second half, when Leicester barely allowed Atletico to settle on anything. Their football was as aggressive then as it was passive in the first half, but the damage had been done. Atletico had their away goal, and the task was just too difficult.
While the performance after the break was full of the spirit and vigour that got Leicester to this implausible stage of the competition, you can't help wondering if they will be left with a sense of "what might have been."
Nick Miller is a writer for ESPN FC, covering Premier League and European football. Follow him on Twitter @NickMiller79.