"We can leave the competition with our heads held high," said Leicester City captain Wes Morgan. If there is a right way to lose, his team found it last night.
Midway through their quarter-final second leg against Atlético Madrid, 2-0 behind on aggregate, the Foxes had appeared set for a meek exit but this Leicester are not a team for doing things by halves, not with their full-throttle football on the field and pre-match fervour off it. Hence the second-half resurgence which rattled Atleti and raised hopes of one more pinch-me moment before the final whistle sounded on a highly impressive debut UEFA Champions League campaign.
How they shook Simeone's men
But for some last-ditch blocks by Atlético defenders, Leicester might have had more than Jamie Vardy's goal to show for their fightback, and towering striker Leo Ulloa explained the half-time change that brought himself and wing-back Ben Chilwell on to the field in a switch to a 3-4-3. "With us a goal down, [manager Craig Shakespeare] wanted us to go direct and look for second balls so we could get closer to their box," said the Argentinian. Winger Marc Albrighton added: "We had to be more aggressive and had to put the big man on and get the ball up to him, and we did that fantastically, but just couldn't get the ball in the net the three times we needed."
"It's sad that the journey stops here," added Albrighton and, in Leicester's case, it really has been a journey. Not just from Bruges, where on 14 September Albrighton struck the first goal of this European adventure, but from English football's third division, from which Leicester had won promotion eight years ago yesterday. After last term's Premier League title-winning exploits, this group of players created a new set of memories in Europe by topping Group G and then beating Sevilla – creating memories of Kasper Schmeichel saving penalties at one end, and Jamie Vardy terrorising defenders at the other.
Pride and praise
Hence Danny Drinkwater’s sense of pride as he stood in the mixed zone afterwards, with an Atlético shirt in his hand. "We can be proud of the performance and how far we've got in the tournament," said the midfielder. "It's been crazy. Five years ago we were nowhere near where we are now. Talking about journeys, it's a bit special. Now the players have had a taste, it creates a new hunger for the team. Hopefully we can push on next season to get [back] in the Champions League."
If that sounds far-fetched, you write Leicester off at your peril, as Diego Godín was only too happy to vouch. Like his manager, Diego Simeone, who shook Leicester players' hands and applauded the home crowd at the finish, the Uruguayan defender praised the Foxes' spirit. "Any other team, after our goal, would have let their heads drop but in the second half Leicester were the complete opposite of that. They showed real conviction and believed until the end." Didn't they just.
©UEFA.com 1998-2011. All rights reserved.