They'll be hurting, but Leicester will always have the night they gave Atleti a huge fright
Leicester will have a pang of regret after losing to Atletico Madrid in the last eight, but in time will realise what an incredible achievement their Champions League run has been, writes Nick Miller.
You probably shouldn't approach a Leicester fan in the next few days or weeks and tell them that it's better to have loved and lost, and all that. The disappointment at their aggregate defeat to Atletico Madrid will be too raw. But it could be worse: they could never have reached the quarter-final of the Champions League. They could never have given the side who have been within a whisker of winning the whole tournament two of the last three years, the fright and battering of their lives. They could have never enjoyed something that the majority of football fans will not get to experience.
In time, the dull ache of disappointment will give way to fond memories. Those inside the King Power – or 'Leicester City Stadium' as it's called, for Champions League purposes – will carry with them the pulsing atmosphere from the 20-odd minutes in the second-half when it looked like they might actually do it. You don't need photos when you can remember feeling like that.
And yet in the end, Leicester might still have a pang of regret. After the break they were relentless, whacking Atletico around the head again and again as they tried to batter their way into the semi-final. It very nearly worked. Even Simeone, a man familiar with the art of winning games through raw physicality, was moved to say Leicester had his side “living in fear all night” about what they could do. Being complimented in such a way by Simeone is a little like Jimmy Page nodding approvingly at your guitar solos.
But by the time Leicester unleashed the full force of everything they have, it was too late. Atletico had taken the lead in the first-half during a spell in which Leicester were alarmingly passive. They stood off Antoine Griezmann and Koke and Yannick Carrasco in a manner that verged on the negligent. In this time Atletico were allowed to dominate and dictate, just enough as to ultimately put the game out of reach. Felipe Luis was allowed too much time to cross, Saul Niguez was given too much space to pick out the header: both things were executed perfectly, but then what do you expect when players of this class are permitted to do as they like?
Atletico Madrid's Yannick Carrasco (R) celebrates after scoring his second goal with team mate Saul NiguezReuters
That might seem a little harsh. There is, as the old cliché goes, little disgrace in losing to a team as good as Atletico, but how strong Leicester were after the break also served to emphasised how limp they were just before it. If only they had done that a little more. If only.
Perhaps that won't matter in the end. This season's Champions League campaign has been a continuation of last season's domestic miracle, a curious side-plot as they tumbled towards the rough end of the Premier League table and failed to replicate the magic that brought them that league title. It was a glorious distraction, and few could have realistically expected them to get this far. It was incredible for them to be in the tournament in the first place, but to reach the last eight was mind-boggling.
“Disappointed to go out, but immensely proud of the performance,” said Leicester manager Craig Shakespeare when he was asked how he felt afterwards. “We gave an excellent team a really good shot. The players should be proud, but they're ultimately disappointed to go out.”
At the end of the game, you could barely hear the final whistle for the noise of the crowd. Usually in these sort of circumstances, where a team has suffered glorious failure, there's a pause as the fans process their disappointment before giving the team the acclaim they have earned. This time there wasn't a pause, the encouragement to grab a late goal melting seamlessly into cheers for their efforts. They deserved it, and not just tonight.
If Leicester winning the Premier League stretched credibility to breaking point, the idea of them doing the same in the Champions League shattered it entirely. That was never going to happen, but even this was beyond what they could have hoped for or dreamed of. They'll always have this. It is better to have loved and lost. Just give them a little time to realise that.