A battle of grit on the cards as Leicester meets Atletico Madrid

Relying on gritty defense and quick counterattacking, the teams meet at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.

Leicester City manager Craig Shakespeare watches his players during a training session in Madrid.   -  REUTERS

Atletico Madrid and Leicester have a lot in common these days.

Relying on gritty defense and quick counter-attacking, the teams meet at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Wednesday in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals.

“They remind us of the best Atleti,” Atletico left back Filipe Luis said. “They have very good players. It’s a solid team that defends very well.”

Atletico made it to two Champions League finals in the last three seasons thanks to Diego Simeone’s stout defense, one that allowed the team to successfully challenge the powerful attacks of teams such as Barcelona and Bayern Munich. Effective offense the other way secured Atletico the victories it needed to remain contending.

“Football is wonderful because no one is always right. There are different styles, different ways to play,” Simeone said. “We have competed and contended in recent competitions and that allowed us to lay down a style. And maybe other teams have looked at us because of that.”

Leicester showed a lot of the same qualities as Atletico when it stunned the soccer world by winning the Premier League title last season under former coach Claudio Ranieri. Fierce defending, quick breakaways and precise finishes also kept it alive in its first Champions League campaign this season despite a struggling start.

“It’s a huge compliment to be compared to Atletico,” Leicester coach Craig Shakespeare said. “It’s a nice comparison.”

Leicester is trying to reach the top by using a similar formula that led the Spanish club to success.

“When I built Leicester, Atletico Madrid was one of the teams I watch. And I tried to compare Leicester to Atletico Madrid,” Ranieri told British broadcaster Sky Sports on Monday. “Simeone is an Argentinian born in Argentina, played in Italy. And Atletico Madrid play in an Italian style. It’s very, very difficult — 4-4-2, very compact, very strong, straight-away go forward, high quality, high intensity.”

The style has led Atletico to the Champions League quarter-finals for the fourth straight season. It lost the final to Real Madrid both in 2014 and 2016, the last one in a penalty shoot-out.

“Leicester’s team is very similar to ours. It defends very well in the back and relies on counter-attacks a lot,” Luis said. “We know it’s going to be very complicated. We are also a team that plays better against opponents that holds possession and tries to control the game. It will be an even match-up.”

Both teams head into the game enjoying their best run of the season after lacklustre starts.

Atletico struggled with inconsistency early on but Simeone was able to get the team back on track entering the final stretch. Atletico is unbeaten in eight games in all competitions and is coming off a draw against Spanish league leader Madrid in the city derby at the Santiago Bernabeu Stadium on Saturday. Atletico has conceded only two goals in its last seven games.

“It’s our best moment to take on this challenge,” Luis said of Atletico, which has won 28 of its last 34 games in European competitions at the Vicente Calderon.

Leicester has been on a roll since Ranieri was fired after guiding Leicester to the Premier League title. The team won six straight games under Shakespeare until a 4—2 loss at Everton on Sunday, when several regular starters were rested.

“We’ll show Atletico the respect they deserve but we are here to compete,” Shakespeare said. “We are not here just to make up the numbers. The players deserve this opportunity.”

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