The last chapter of arguably the most incredible story in soccer history has finally been written.
Leicester City, the reigning Premier League champion that famously beat 5,000-to-1 odds last season, continued its Cinderella run in the UEFA Champions League by winning its group and dispatching cup tournament specialists Sevilla with a stunning round-of-16 victory. But the Foxes could not muster another miracle in Tuesday’s quarterfinal second leg against Atletico Madrid at King Power Stadium.
Already ahead thanks to a 1-0 win in Madrid last week, Atleti added an away goal on Saul Niguez’s 26th-minute header for a 2-0 aggregate advantage. Jamie Vardy’s 61st-minute goal gave Leicester hope of another knockout-round comeback, but Atletico held on for the 1-1 draw to advance to the Champions League’s final four with a 2-1 quarterfinal victory.
The task of knocking off another Spanish side, especially one that has reached two of the last three Champions League finals, was always going to be difficult for the Foxes. Diego Simeone and Atleti specialize in stifling attacks and figured to handle everything Craig Shakespeare’s Foxes threw at them in the return leg in Leicester.
That was the case early on when Atletico controlled the first 15 minutes or so, but then the Foxes began to assert themselves behind the inspiration of Riyad Mahrez. The Algerian served as the catalyst, creating Leicester’s best chance in the first half with a through ball to Jamie Vardy, who squared it for Shinji Okazaki in the box. The Japanese forward, however, hit his first-timed shot well over the bar.
The positive spell had the Foxes owning the bulk of the possession at that point (51 percent). But then Atletico delivered the fateful blow with its own piece of counterattacking brilliance.
With Leicester’s defense stretched and scrambling, Filipe Luis had plenty of time on the left to size up his cross. He picked out an unmarked Saul Niguez, whose textbook header back across the goal beat Kasper Schmeichel for a 1-0 Atleti lead and, more importantly, an away goal and a 2-0 aggregate advantage.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 18, 2017
That felt like the end for the Foxes. But, of course, they would find a way to make things interesting.
Ben Chilwell, a halftime substitute, would surprisingly play a significant role in the comeback attempt. He nearly got Leicester on the board when his 51st-minute volley sailed just over the cross bar. He also had a header that was saved by goalkeeper Jan Oblak. The persistence by Chilwell would pay off in the 61st minute.
His deflected shot fell to Vardy, who hit the ball first-time to fire it past Oblak and pull the Foxes even on the night at 1-1 and bring them within 1-2 on aggregate. A raucous King Power Stadium suddenly had hope.
— FOX Soccer (@FOXSoccer) April 18, 2017
Leicester kept applying pressure on Atleti to produce a series of chances. In the 65th minute, a poor clearance gave Leonard Ulloa an open look, but the forward had his shot blocked by Lucas Hernandez. Then in the 68th minute, a bouncing cross found Vardy all alone in the box, but Stefan Savic prevented the quarterfinal tie equalizer by blocking the Englishman’s attempt. Moments later, Savic came up big again with another clutch block, this time to keep out Wilfred Ndidi’s shot from inside the area.
That would be it for Leicester. Atletico, never glamorous but always clinical in executing Simeone’s gameplan, weathered the late storm and wound down the final 20 minutes to move on to yet another Champions League semifinal.
For the Foxes, their Hollywood tale is complete. After beginning their title defense with the worst-ever start by a Premier League champion, an embarrassing stretch that ultimately cost World Manager of the Year winner Claudio Ranieri his job, Leicester enjoyed a late-season resurgence under Shakespeare to end any danger of relegation. All that’s left is six more league games and then, of course, await casting for the movie about their unlikely championship season of 2015-16. Charlie Hunnam as Vardy is a no-brainer.
Joe Lago is the editor of FC Yahoo. Follow him on Twitter @joelago.