Tonight the Vicente Calderón plays host to a Champions League quarter-final clash between home side Atlético Madrid and visitors Leicester City. Many have billed this tie as the least glamorous of the round with Juve vs Barca & Bayern vs Real seen as the games titans slugging it out whilst Dortmund vs Monaco promises a goal-fest and offers us a glimpse at future world-class talent.
The game in Madrid however, pits two defensively minded clubs against each other who both absorb pressure and play on the counter-attack due to a perceived lack of quality in comparison to their adversaries. Los Rojiblancos are seen as clear favourites and rightly so given their home advantage and the fact they’ve been finalists twice in the last three years. That’s not to say the Foxes can’t cause them problems though. Below, I look at four factors that if adhered to, will give the blues a fighting chance.
With Robert Huth, Wilfred Ndidi, Islam Slimani and Jamie Vardy all one booking away from missing the second leg, it is integral the players keep their emotions in check. Diego Simeone is a fiery character and transmits that passion and slyness through his players. Vardy in particular is pivotal to Leicester’s game plan and the Atléti defenders will be more than aware of his volatile temperament. At the other end of the pitch, should Wes Morgan fail to recover in time for the second-leg, a booking to Robert Huth would be a severe hammer blow. Taking Atléti back to the King Power with something to play for is the aim but without either first-choice centre-back, the tie seems unwinnable.
Play Atléti at their own game
Over the past 6 years, Simeone has transformed his side into one of the most fearsome teams in world football. In a style not too dissimilar to Leicester, they deploy a deep-lying 4-4-2 (or 4-4-1-1) and aim to form a deep block whilst aggressively pressing when their opponents take a bad touch or play a wayward pass. They also often concede possession in order to hit teams when they are out of balance. One glimmer of hope for the Foxes is that the onus is on the home side to win meaning they must take the game to Leicester. This will suit Craig Shakespeare’s men as they can allow Atléti to shift the ball from side to side whilst maintaining a rigid and compact shape. The longer the game stays scoreless, the more it will begin to unnerve the hosts and Leicester may find some opportunities to inflict damage themselves via Vardy as Los Rojiblancos pour forward in search of a breakthrough.
Be organised and aggressive from set-pieces
If Leicester learned anything from the weekends fixture against Everton, it’s that without the organising presence of captain Morgan, they are susceptible to set-pieces. His replacement Yohan Benalouane twice lost his marker from corners and twice the Toffees found the back of the net. Shakespeare post-match spoke about the need to be more aggressive when defending and the Foxes will have to be at their regimented best to keep Atléti at bay and in particular, Diego Godín who is a constant threat given his aerial prowess. It’s likely that Shinji Okazaki will partner Vardy up front meaning the only real height in the team comes from the centre-backs and Ndidi making the need for concentration and organisation even more imperative.
Be wary of Atléti’s ‘pressing traps’
As touched on previously, Atléti love to press at opportune moments and often set ‘traps’ on the field to lure opponents into positions where they have numerical superiority. This starts from the front line where Fernando Torres will curve his run upon the centre-back receiving the ball. This narrows the angle and forces him to pass to one side. The second striker (Antoine Griezmann) then blocks off any inside passing lanes again encouraging the full-back to give the ball to the winger. From here Atléti will press with their full-back pushing up, wide man closing in and Griezmann now blocking the pass back to the full-back. This creates a 3-on-1 situation and almost always leads to a turnover in possession. The only way to counter act this is for the centre-back to beat his man (risky) or play a long-ball, something Simeone’s men will eat up given their height advantage over Leicester’s strikers. It’s hard to say exactly how Leicester will deal with this tactic. The only obvious solutions come in the form of introducing Slimani for added height or relying on Riyad Mahrez’s individual flair to play out of tight spaces.
This evenings encounter marks Leicester’s sternest test to date. It will be very tough for the Foxes to win so the focus has to be on bringing a respectable scoreline back to the King Power. If they can execute the above points correctly however, anything’s possible.