‘It may all be over but we’ll be back.’ As Leicester’s exhausted, heartbroken players made their way through the King Power Stadium to head home, it was the same message of defiance over and over again.
“Now we’ve had a taste of it, we want more. There’s nothing for us to be scared of,” Danny Drinkwater declared.
Could the Foxes one today return to the Champions League? “Yes, absolutely,” said Wes Morgan. “This season has been more downs than ups, but I feel we’ve turned it around and we’re coming good now. If we had shown the same form all season that we’ve shown of late, we could be in a Champions League spot again.”
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“The aim in future is to get more European football,” Wilfred Ndidi reiterated. “We battled and I’ve not known a team like Leicester before, we are something special.”
Defiant, humble, and wholly assured, the Foxes conducted themselves with the same aura of self-belief off the pitch as they had shown on it. Against the intelligence and experience of Atletico Madrid – one of Europe’s premium clubs – Leicester had gone down fighting until the bitter end.
Saul Niguez’s sublime headed goal may have dealt the hammer blow but after Craig Shakespeare’s tactical tweak, switching to three at the back and bringing Leonardo Ulloa into the fray, Leicester were in the ascendancy. Striking from close range just after the hour mark, Jamie Vardy’s equaliser sent ripples of electricity around the King Power Stadium to inject hope into the home side.
Shakespeare’s dogs of war were subsequently let slip, baring their teeth, snapping at the Atletico players, hungry for a second and third goal. Chances certainly came Leicester’s way. Ben Chilwell’s flashed half-volley fizzed inches past Jan Oblak’s right-hand side post while another goal mouth scramble was blocked on the line by defender Stefan Savic. In those final 30 minutes, there was a sense that, against the odds, Leicester were set to pull off yet another footballing miracle.
“We were living in fear all night of what they might achieve,” Diego Simeone admitted afterwards. “They never gave up for one minute. They pushed us all the way.” On this occasion, though, Atletico held on to clinch victory and bring down the curtain on the Foxes’ fairytale.
But the question that now remains for Leicester and their fans: what next?
Shakespeare and his players were unequivocal in their answer. “We have some unfinished business in the Premier League – we need to pick more points up,” Vardy insisted. “Now it is about getting back to the grind.”
Morgan echoed such sentiment. “We’re back to the league now. First of all we need to concentrate on the rest of the season, hopefully finishing on a high note, and then next season we need to dust ourselves off and look forward again.”
Leicester’s remaining six league games will undoubtedly serve as a telling indicator of what lies in store for the side, and whether the last 21 months have opened a new chapter in the club’s 133-year history.
If Tuesday’s performance is anything to go by, the side have certainly disproved the idea that they are a team with no Plan B. Although the side’s Sunday League idiosyncrasies continued to define their approach, the switch to 3-5-2, which brought them close to success, demonstrated that this is a team capable of evolving and adapting in the face of adversity.
With Shakespeare they have a manager who possesses the tactical nous to keep his side multi-dimensional and, perhaps more importantly, has the backing of the changing room. Offering continuity from Nigel Pearson’s tenure, here is a man who can continue to drive Leicester in the right direction.
The changing of the guard, of course, poses an inevitable obstacle for the club, with players such as Morgan and Vardy already into their 30s. Recruitment in the summer will prove vital as Leicester bid to strengthen in the right way – as opposed to ‘splashing the cash’ on high-profile flops.
Even so, the future already looks bright on account of the club’s emerging talent. The likes of Ndidi, Chilwell and Demarai Gray offer the Foxes a promising platform from which to build upon. The challenge, now, is holding on to these youthful prospects.
‘The ride may be over,’ as Morgan eventually concluded, but there’s no doubt Leicester stand on the brink of something rare in this day and age: redefining themselves as a club for the years to come.