Since roughly the midway point of an improbable march to the Premier League title last season, people have been talking loudly about not underestimating Leicester City, only for their actions to often whisper gently beneath the bellow of their words.
Now it is the turn of Diego Simeone to pick up the script, although Atletico Madrid’s head coach is not one for platitudes and brings an authenticity few can match.
There are few reference points in modern football for Leicester’s Premier League heist, but Atletico’s besting of the mighty Real Madrid and Barcelona to win LaLiga in 2013-14 is the clearest one – they even had the temerity to seal glory on the final day at Camp Nou.
Two well-drilled and tireless banks of four, livewire attackers and a collective toiling successfully to outmanoeuvre better resourced foes. There are obvious parallels between Leicester and Atletico’s success stories, prompting a notable pre-match kinship before their Champions League quarter-final first leg at the Vicente Calderon on Wednesday.
“We know that the game will be very tough against a rival that is similar to us,” Simeone said after Atletico made a now customary nuisance of themselves in the Madrid derby on Saturday, Antoine Griezmann snatching a 1-1 draw at the Santiago Bernabeu.
The obvious difference between the two is that, while Leicester lulled dangerously after conquering their Everest, Atletico continued their grind under Simeone.
Further major honours have not followed but they are two-time Champions League runners-up, remain the opponents Madrid and Barca least relish facing and are wedged into a seat at Europe’s top table having muscled in uninvited.
Simeone knows better than most what Leicester’s journey has required and has good reason to fear a revitalised forward talisman.
“I like him, I really rate him as striker,” he said at a pre-match news conference when discussing Jamie Vardy.
“He is the kind of powerful striker Atletico have had. He gives the team a lot of depth, and makes life difficult for defenders to get the ball out.
“He is very dangerous and if we make any mistakes, he will penalise that.”
5 – Jamie Vardy has scored 5 goals in 5 PL games under Craig Shakespeare, as many as in his previous 22 under C. Ranieri in 16/17. Revival. pic.twitter.com/lR1hapNuJC
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) April 6, 2017
Vardy scored for the first time in 10 matches as Claudio Ranieri’s reign ended with a bitter taste and recriminations at Sevilla.
The England international has five goals in seven games under elevated successor Craig Shakespeare and drove Atletico’s LaLiga counterparts to distraction when they were dumped out of the Champions League before a baying King Power Stadium last month.
It means a ratio of 0.71 goals per game with Shakespeare in charge for Vardy, set against 0.22 under Ranieri this season and even above his 0.63 from the title-winning campaign.
This is replicated across the board, with the 30-year-old producing more shots on target, creating more chances, attempting, and completing, more dribbles and weighing in with a couple of assists since Ranieri left the scene.
An added benefit of Leicester’s European run is it delays a more lengthy inquest into what on earth Vardy and company were playing at until late February. If Atletico’s players did something similar under Simeone, you could reasonably fear for their well-being.
Here lies the crux. While Leicester at their best disarm technically superior opponents by outworking them, Atletico will match them for blood and sweat and possess one of world football’s most coveted attackers to boot.
Griezmann has 23 goals this season, without a penalty among them, and boasts a superior shooting accuracy to each of Barcelona’s “MSN” and Real Madrid’s “BBC”. He also outstrips LaLiga’s marquee forward lines in term of possession recoveries (170) and has created more chances than Luis Suarez, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – every inch the Simeone superstar.
Reportedly Manchester United’s prime close-season transfer target, Griezmann should find a Leicester defence without captain Wes Morgan and breached four times at Everton on Sunday to his liking. But he will not under-estimate them – Simeone would not allow it for a second.
— OptaJose (@OptaJose) February 21, 2017
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