Champions League: Can Leicester City Possibly Beat Atletico Madrid?
Leicester City’s league campaign has not gone exactly as planned so far this season, and the club controversially fired manager Claudio Ranieri in February when they were only one point above the relegation zone. The decision was met with much criticism at the time as Ranieri had won the league in historic fashion just one season prior, but the decision seems to be paying off for the Foxes at the moment.
Craig Shakespeare took over the managing duties after the firing of Ranieri, and the team reversed their fortunes, winning their first six games under the new manager by reverting back to what made them so good a season ago. Leicester lost their first game under Shakespeare on Sunday against Everton, but they have still managed to climb all the way up to 11th in the league standings -- no longer in danger of getting relegated.
Not only that, but under Shakespeare, Leicester managed to mount a come-from-behind victory against Sevilla in the Champions League Round of 16, helping the team advance to a quarterfinal matchup with Atletico Madrid.
A few weeks ago, it would have seemed like an impossible task for Leicester City to even compete with the likes of Atletico, a club which has been in two of the past three Champions League finals. But given their improved play in recent weeks, Leicester fans should at least have some hope that they can pull off an upset against the Spanish giants.
A Big Underdog
The betting line lists Leicester City as a 1.5-goal underdog for the first-leg matchup against Atletico, which will be played in Madrid on Wednesday, and the Foxes have the lowest odds (+3,300) of winning the competition.
This is not a huge surprise. Atletico were Champions League finalists last season, and they currently sit in third place in La Liga while Leicester is 11th in the Premier League.
However, there is also reason to believe that Atletico could struggle with Leicester across both legs of the tie considering how each team likes to play.
Neither Team Wants the Ball
Atletico Madrid are a team that is often comfortable conceding a good amount of possession to their opponents. Conceding possession, playing menacing defense and jetting away on the counter is precisely how Atleti has given Spanish superpowers Barcelona and Real Madrid fits in recent years.
Atletico have averaged a mere 49% possession per game this season, a mark well below that of a typical world-class team, and they have had even less possession than normal across their last five games. Atletico seems to perfectly happy conceding possession, even against teams like Malaga, who are in the lower half of the La Liga table.
Similarly, Leicester City average only 44% possession so far this season. Even under new manager Craig Shakespeare, they are still seem more comfortable conceding a good amount of possession to their opponents. Here's what Leicester has done in terms of possession in their last five games.
Leicester City and Atletico both prefer to play with less than 50% possession, but obviously one team will have to take on the bulk of the possession when they match up on Wednesday.
Being on the road, it's safe to assume Leicester will play this game extremely conservatively, conceding most of the possession to Atletico. This could take Atletico a little bit out of their comfort zone as they are not used to dictating the game with possession. Plus, Leicester City have a fantastic goalkeeper in Kasper Schmeichel, who can potentially help them survive one or two defensive lapses.
What Is a Good First-Leg Result for Leicester?
Undoubtedly, Atletico is the better team, and this game is in Madrid. We can expect Leicester to defend for their lives and make life as difficult as possible for Atletico Madrid on Wednesday. Leicester will just want to head into the second leg with a fighting chance, so they'd gladly take a 1-0 or 2-1 loss in the first leg.
That's the plan they followed in the last round, losing 2-1 at Sevilla in the first leg but getting a critical away goal (away goals are the tiebreaker across the two legs) before winning the second leg 2-0 back in Leicester.
Schmeichel will need to be in great form for the Foxes, and they'll need to take advantage of the few attacking chances they get. The longer Leicester can keep it scoreless on Wednesday, the more likely it is that Atletico gets frustrated. However, if Atleti can score a goal or two early and force Leicester to take more chances, it's not hard to envision things getting away from the Foxes.