Leicester's fairytale sequel comes to an abrupt halt, but the dream goes on
LEICESTER, England -- It had to end sometime. No dream can last forever, and when referee Gianluca Rocchi blew his whistle after four minutes of stoppage time at the end of Leicester City's 1-1 draw against Atletico Madrid, it was like the ringing of an alarm clock, and it woke the whole club with a jolt.
Leicester already had a happy ending to their fairytale when they won the Premier League title last season, but the sequel has come to an abrupt stop, with Rocchi's whistle akin to Bobby Ewing's pulling back the shower curtain in Dallas and revealing the run to the Champions League quarterfinals to be nothing more than a dream.
It has been more than that, though. Leicester have lived the dream and proven to every club with ambition and belief that miracles can happen in football. Eight years ago to the day, the Foxes secured the League One title with a 2-0 victory over Southend United at Roots Hall. Now, they were taking on last season's Champions League finalists for a place in the semifinals.
They had enough chances during the second half against Atletico, after Jamie Vardy's 61st-minute goal cancelled out Saul Niguez's first-half opener, to win this game and extend their story with qualification for the semifinals. But Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa saw goal-bound shots blocked, young left-back Ben Chilwell volleyed over the crossbar from 12 yards and Wilfred Ndidi shot wide from a similar distance.
Had they been more ruthless and clinical in front of goal, Leicester really could have gone from Roots Hall to Real Madrid, but after a dismal defence of their Premier League crown, there will be no European adventure next season, and the unpalatable reality for the club and their supporters is that it might be years before these nights return to the King Power Stadium.
Perhaps that is why Craig Shakespeare and his players lingered on the pitch at the end of the game, saluting the supporters who had stayed behind to applaud them. Even Diego Simeone, the Atletico coach, joined in, shaking every Leicester player's hand before applauding all four sides of the stadium as he disappeared up the tunnel.
"This has been a marvellous tie, with passion, teams taking risks," Simeone said. "Any football fan would be filled with emotion after what they have seen.
"We must give much credit to our opponent. They pushed us all night and had us living in fear every time they pushed forward."
The King Power Stadium has shaken at times during the run to the quarterfinals. Some clubs have become blasé about playing in the Champions League, but Leicester have milked every moment, and their atmospheric ground will be missed next year.
Wes Morgan, the Leicester captain, admitted last season that the prospect of playing in the competition was in the realms of fantasy, with the Jamaica international claiming that his only previous experience of the Champions League was "watching the Champions League on TV with friends."
Morgan returned from a back injury for this second leg, with Robert Huth missing through suspension, and he was immense throughout until a late cramp cut short his participation. The 33-year-old typifies the Leicester story. A journeyman player whose career has been spent earning a hard living in the lower leagues was now sharing the stage with Antoine Griezmann, Diego Godin and Gabi and performing as though he was a veteran in this rarefied atmosphere.
Vardy, Danny Simpson, Marc Albrighton, Kasper Schmeichel and Riyad Mahrez all share the same story, but while this feels like the final chapter for some of them, interim-manager Craig Shakespeare insisted that everyone connected with the club must aim high and seek a swift return to this level.
"The whole club, from the supporters to the players to the owners, can be immensely proud," Shakespeare said. "But I've just said to the players that they should want more of this, and they've agreed that that's what they want.
"The momentum was with us after Vardy's goal, and we needed that second one when the opportunity came, but unfortunately, it just wasn't to be."
Whether Shakespeare remains in charge to succeed Claudio Ranieri, sacked less than 12 months after he won the title, remains to be seen, but the 53-year-old is right to set big targets for the club.
Leicester's owners are ambitious, wealthy and determined to create to a new force in English football and ensure that last season was more than a one-off. Winning the title again will be a tall order, but qualifying for Europe could be achieved with the right appointment and astute investments in the squad.
Plus, there is a sense of unfinished business around the club, with many supporters yearning for a big night against the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich.
Leicester did not quite get their moment in the spotlight against one of the Champions League's genuine superpowers here, so there is still something to aim for. But it will take some scriptwriter to fashion another chapter that sees the King Power Stadium reverberate to the Champions League anthem again.
They can dream, of course, but rather than ending their season with a Champions League final in Cardiff, the curtain will fall after a home game against Bournemouth next month.
That is the grim reality, but it will take some getting used to.
Mark Ogden is a senior football writer for ESPN FC. Follow him @MarkOgden_