Given that the competition has left him playing with a catheter for the past two seasons, Atletico Madrid midfielder Saul Niguez has an improbably insatiable appetite for the big Champions League moments.
The 22-year-old spoke graphically of his ordeal with a kidney problem, the result of a heavy blow sustained against Bayer Leverkusen in 2015, ahead of Tuesday’s quarter-final second leg with Leicester City.
Saul insisted risking his health and passing blood after every match and training session was a worthwhile sacrifice in order to “defend these colours, to fulfil this dream”.
His tie-settling 26th-minute header in a 1-1 draw at the King Power Stadium, directed across Kasper Schmeichel and into the corner with clinical precision, was his third in this season’s competition. All have come away from home, all have broken the deadlock.
Last term, he mesmerised Bayern Munich with a solo goal for the ages at the Vicente Calderon in the semi-finals. Now, Atletico are into the final four for the third time in four seasons – as hungry as ever to erase the heartache of Lisbon 2014 and Milan 2016. Another all-Madrid showdown remains tantalisingly on the cards.
Saul’s goal was particularly crushing as it came on the back of Leicester’s most convincing spell of first-half pressure. There is a devilish ruthlessness to Diego Simeone’s side, who navigate this business end of the Champions League with in-built GPS.
— Atlético de Madrid (@atletienglish) April 18, 2017
There is a grit running through Saul that epitomises Atletico’s collective strength and Antoine Griezmann is their dazzling jewel. A forward with a velvet touch to complement the tenacity his manager requires, while viewing the whole field in widescreen technicolour.
If Manchester United can prize him from the Spanish capital as they purportedly intend to, it would be some coup.
Griezmann often roamed deep behind the gallivanting Yannick Carrasco here – a surprise choice to start in attack. When not in possession, he even presses gracefully.
In the space of a couple of minutes after Saul’s goal, Griezmann slid in on the blindside to execute a perfect tackle on Danny Drinkwater and launch an Atletico counter. His next contribution came when Wilfred Ndidi – Leicester’s ball-winning midfielder – tried a similar challenge and landed on the seat of his pants as the France international scooted off in the other direction.
Christian Fuchs was left similarly well acquainted with fresh air by Griezmann early in the second period, before the 26-year-old scissor-kicked a clearance out of his own box. He is a superstar, Simeone style.
Faced with such formidable foes, Leicester were superb in their own right, with Craig Shakespeare’s switch 3-4-3 disrupting the continent’s most stubborn defence and allowing Jamie Vardy to raise the roof when he equalised after the hour.
Desperation and last-ditch blocks replaced the expected cruise control for Simeone’s men. It was an absorbing spectacle.
There can be no shame whatsoever attached to the Foxes’ efforts over these two matches, only pride. The cause for regret lies deeper and will be reflected upon when the season ends.
— Leicester City (@LCFC) April 18, 2017
Leicester’s sensational Premier League title win drew comparisons with Atletico’s LaLiga heist of 2013-14 that bested the mighty Barcelona and Real Madrid.
During the subsequent close-season, they lost their best player to Chelsea. Sound familiar?
However, they did not return to red and white striped sports cars and hand-wringing over the merits of the sweet potato. Under Simeone they ploughed on, worked harder and stayed among the elite – all with the help of Griezmann arriving from Real Sociedad for €30million. That sort of money gets you Islam Slimani nowadays.
Of course, Leicester were never going to match the dizzying heights of last season. Domestically, Atletico have not been truly close to replicating 2013-14, but City should never have tumbled so far as they did when last autumn turned into English winter and chicken burgers were replaced by pasta.
Watching the fright they gave Atletico as the decibel level soared at the King Power, it was hard not to ponder how uncomfortable they might have made life for Manchester United, Manchester City and Liverpool – sides grappling with varying stages of transition and the top-four scrap, not to mention the ongoing Arsene Wenger soap opera.
Europe’s aristocrats will not miss Vardy and company’s relentlessness next season, but they are condemned to Atletico’s unblinking courage for some time to come.
Leicester showed earlier in the season how easily football’s upstarts can fall from grace. Atletico’s staying power, as they scent the ultimate prize once more, is Simeone’s finest achievement.
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