It has been a season of ups and downs for Atlético Madrid, but after a terrible run of form that saw them fall out of top four and lose 3-0 to their crosstown rivals, they now have a great chance at winning the elusive piece of European silverware that has escaped them for so long. They will face Leicester City, who have had quite an interesting season of their own regard. This is a contest between two sides that have achieved success in recent years with similar approaches towards the game. This isn’t a fixture that will seem appealing to neutrals who love seeing beautiful, intricate football, but what this tie will have is two sides who have risen to fame through the arts of counter-attacking football and defending from deep.
Atlético are in good form as of late, having won five games on the bounce, and they currently lie third in La Liga, having finally closing the gap on Sevilla last weekend after many months, winning 2-0 away at Málaga. They now sit 3 points ahead of the Andalusians, which all of a sudden makes automatic qualification for next season’s Champions League campaign a very realistic aim for Los Rojiblancos. Before this European encounter, Atlético make a short trip across the Spanish capital to play current league leaders Real Madrid at the Santiago Bernabéu, in a fixture that will determine how Simeone sets up for his encounter against last season’s Premier League winners. Atlético haven’t tasted defeat at the Bernabéu in a league encounter in over four years, winning all their battles in the white side of Madrid. Continuing that streak will give the Rojiblancos the world of confidence ahead of the showdown against the Foxes.
With the first leg being played at the iconic Vicente Calderón, there are some things that Atlético will be looking to avoid as well as achieve. Should Leicester take an away goal back to the East Midlands, the pressure on Atlético to reach the semi-finals will be even greater, taking into account how hostile the King Power Stadium can be when big sides come to town. Sevilla suffered this exact same fate when playing at the King Power in the Round of 16, after Leicester managed to grab an away goal despite losing the first leg in the Andalusian capital. Still, the Calderón is currently one of the great fortresses of European football, with Atlético not conceding a goal at home in a Champions League knockout game since Kaká scored for Milan in the Round of 16 during the 13/14 season, managing to keep the likes of Real Madrid, Barcelona and Bayern Munich at bay since that encounter against the 7-times European Cup winners.
Manager Diego Simeone usually sets his team up to play in a counter attacking 4-4-2, characterized by a compact midfield that defends as a unit. This hasn’t always been the case this season.
Looking at the midfield, one of the wide roles is usually occupied by Koke or Saúl due to their ability to attack as well as their defensive qualities, while the other is occupied an out-and-out winger, usually Yannick Ferreira-Carrasco, with the hope of producing rapid transitions through effective high intensity pressing as a narrow block of four (which allows the fullbacks to overlap) to win the ball and then attacking, using as much width as possible; one of the central midfielders (usually Gabi) will play a more defensive-minded role whilst the other (either Koke or Saúl) will look to win the ball further up the pitch.
Up top, Antoine Griezmann plays behind either Kevin Gameiro or Fernando Torres (normally the former) and provides the link between the midfield and the frontman.
Although this is Simeone’s usual setup, in a number of fixtures this season, he has looked to dominate possession, particularly against lesser teams, using formations such as the 4-3-3 and 4-2-4 (which frankly has been a failure) at times. I believe Atlético will dominate possession simply because it will be difficult to let a team such as Leicester (who will perhaps be keener on sitting deep and hitting the opposition on the counter than Atlético) to have the ball.
Predicted line-up (4-4-2):
Oblak; Juanfran, Godín, Giménez, Filipe Luís; Saúl, Gabi, Koke, Carrasco; Griezmann, Torres
Who to watch out for:
Atlético’s best player this season, Filipe has been nothing short of excellent during the campaign. The Brazilian has consistently produced good performances both defensively and offensively. Since returning from his poor spell at Chelsea and even before his move to West London, Luís has been a player that the fans can count on to deliver for the team on a regular basis. Despite being aware of his defensive responsibilities, the Brazilian loves to make intelligent runs forward with the ball and has been instrumental in some of Atlético’s attacks this season, finding the net twice (both goals coming within the last week against Málaga and Real Sociedad) and has also chipped in 4 assists, and he’ll be keen to add to those tallies against Leicester with the attacking form he’s been in as of late. Leicester will have a lot to be wary about down the left flank if Filipe continues to play the way he has.
If Atlético don’t underestimate Leicester and play the way they have been as of late as well as converting more chances than they should’ve against Real Sociedad, I see them getting the better of the Foxes. Any complacency however, and Leicester will be licking their lips and waiting to pounce as a result.
Atlético 2-0 Leicester
Featured image credit: EFE, Vicente Calderón photo: Twitter (@Atleti), Diego Simeone photo: EFE, Filipe Luis photo: Gonzalo Arroyo Moreno/Getty Images Europe