Leicester seeks to defy odds, prolong dazzling 8-year ascent
ABS-CBN Sports on Apr 18, 2017 09:15 AM
Leicester City's Andy King, left, hits a cross as Atletico's Koke attempts to block during the Champions League quarterfinal first leg soccer match between Atletico Madrid and Leicester City at the Vicente Calderon stadium in Madrid, Spain, Wednesday, April 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Paul White)
ROB HARRIS, AP Global Soccer Writer
LEICESTER, England (AP) — Hosting Atletico Madrid will be a moment to savor for Leicester.
Unless a 1-0 deficit can be overturned on Tuesday, it's likely to be a long, long wait before the Champions League returns to the King Power Stadium.
And the players don't hide that fact. They don't have an inferiority complex, just a realization of how difficult it will be to reach the semifinals in their first shot at European soccer's elite competition, let alone returning in the near future.
While Atletico is third in La Liga, Leicester has sunk far from the Champions League places in England — 12th in the Premier League it won so unexpectedly last May.
"We are small Leicester," defender Christian Fuchs said Monday. "Playing in the Champions League is already great, then being in quarterfinals is outstanding. We just enjoy the time that we have. We might never be here again."
Losing would close a chapter on an improbable eight-year ascent for the Premier League champions.
The quarterfinal second leg is being played eight years to the day since the club secured its passage out of English soccer's third tier by beating Southend United.
"The journey has been incredible," said caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare, who was in his first season on the coaching staff when Leicester won 2-0 at Southend on April 18, 2009. "Where this club has come from has been remarkable."
That's why writing off the Foxes can backfire.
They were expected to falter in last season's Premier League title race, but the 5,000-1 shots not only improbably lifted the trophy for the first time but seized top spot by 10 points.
Even as Leicester slid down the standings this season, plunged into a relegation fight that cost manager Claudio Ranieri his job, the team still defied expectations in Europe.
As English teams were eliminated — first Tottenham, then Arsenal and Manchester City, Leicester defied the odds once again. It's the last English team standing, but only given about a 3-1 chance of going through with bookmakers while Atletico is the overwhelming favorite.
"Let's show they have got it wrong tomorrow," Shakespeare said. "We will start as underdogs because of the history of Madrid but we are quite comfortable with that, we know what we have got to do and let's hope we can earn people a few bob (pounds)."
And not crack under the pressure, Fuchs said in response to an Easter egg-themed question.
"That's what everyone is expecting from us anyway, what they expected last season," the 31-year-old Austrian said. "We have such a great team spirit we don't let it affect us. There's a lot of pressure all the time, this year it was fighting against relegation and we came out of that. We're just looking forward to the game and trying to give everything."
Captain Wes Morgan could return after missing the last six games with a back injury, including last Tuesday's first leg when Antoine Griezmann's penalty gave Atletico the advantage.
Griezmann was clipped by defender Marc Albrighton but the striker appeared to be just outside the penalty area when contact was made.
"It's not gnawing away, the referee gave his decision and the last thing the club and players need is me harping on about it," Shakespeare said. "We have to get on with it. The referee made his decision, although it's there for everyone to see it's the wrong one. We have to make sure we're ready and focused for the game."