Champions League

Exploring The Improbable History Between Leicester City and Atletico Madrid

Despite having only graced major European competitions on three previous occasions, Leicester have some serious history with Atletico. Here, we look back at their unlikely rivalry.

by Will Magee
12 April 2017, 11:20am

PA Images

When Leicester City's ball was scooped out at the start the Champions League quarter-final draw, there was a sense of inevitability to proceedings. Fished out of its bowl, unscrewed and opened by the meaty and maladroit hand of Ian Rush, the name on the folded card within should have come as no surprise to history buffs. Despite having only graced major European competitions on three occasions in the past, Leicester had considerable previous when it came to being drawn against Atletico Madrid. The Vicente Calderón side were their opponents once again, ready to contest a tie which still seemed a tad out of place next to clashes between Juventus and Barcelona, Dortmund and Monaco, and Bayern Munich and Real Madrid.

Though it's not often that Leicester are spoken about in the same breath as Bayern, Real, Juve and Barca, they have some serious history with Atleti. Indeed, Leicester's second ever European tie was against Atletico, this at a time when Los Rojiblancos still played at the old Estadio Metropolitano de Madrid. Atletico would not move to the Calderón until 1967, while their first match against Leicester dates back to the autumn of 1961. When they move to the Wanda Metropolitano later this year, Diego Simeone and co. should really invite Leicester for an inaugural friendly. Bizarrely for a club which has made so few forays into European football, Leicester have come up against Atletico more than any other English side.

That fateful first meeting in 1961 was in the second round of the European Cup Winners' Cup, a tournament which Atletico would go on to win. Leicester had qualified for the competition after reaching the final of the FA Cup the season before, where they lost to an all-conquering Tottenham team managed by the legendary Bill Nicholson. Spurs had also won the league that term and hence qualified for the European Cup, leaving Leicester with the consolation of a campaign against the holders of the continent's domestic baubles. Atletico had claimed the Copa del Rey at the end of the 1960-61 season, setting them on a collision course with the East Midlands team.

READ MORE: The Cult – Neil Lennon

Over two first-round legs Leicester comfortably beat Glenavon, a club making not only their first appearance in the Cup Winners' Cup but also the first appearance of any side from Northern Ireland in the competition. Meanwhile, Atletico dispatched Coupe de France holders CS Sedan by an aggregate score of 7-3, suggesting they meant business. Having been drawn against each other, Leicester and Atletico played out a nervy 1-1 draw at Filbert Street, before the Foxes went away to Spain for the first time in their competitive history. In a tense, gruelling and hard-fought match, they were downed in the second half by the shooting boots of Miguel Jones and legendary Atleti striker Enrique Collar Monterrubio, with the former going on to score a decisive goal in the final against Fiorentina.

Leicester would have to wait 36 years for their next taste of major European competition, this time in the guise of a UEFA Cup jaunt under the management of Martin O'Neill. Having won the League Cup in 1997 with a team inspired by the unpoetic talents of Steve Claridge, Emile Heskey, Garry Parker and Neil Lennon, they qualified for Europe's second most prestigious competition and were drawn against none other than Atletico Madrid. While the probabilities of drawing the same team in two different competitions several decades apart are surely infinitesimally small, the mighty footballing fates had spoken and Leicester headed off to the Calderón for the first leg.

While Atleti were a formidable side at the time, they were not perhaps as imperious as they are today. They had ended up fifth in the La Liga standings come the end of the 1996-97 season and had failed to pick up any silverware that campaign. That said, they had picked up a crucial player in the form of Juninho, who had been in the Middlesbrough side which had lost to Leicester in the 1997 League Cup final before signing for Atletico in the aftermath of Boro's relegation. The diminutive Brazilian midfielder would have his revenge on the Foxes, and a huge bearing on the tie which was about to take place.

Speaking to The Guardian about the two legs against Atletico, some of the contemporary Leicester squad still seem to harbour a degree of resentment over the way things went. Ian Marshall, the man who scored the first goal in what was eventually a 4-1 aggregate defeat, said of the first leg: "I think we would've won if I had stayed on, but one of their centre-halves did a number on me. I've got a three or four inch scar down the back of my calf, which needed about eight stitches, so I had to go off. I just felt in the zone. But they scored two late goals and we lost 2-1." One of those goals was scored by Juninho, who poked home after a sleek lay off just inside the Leicester box.

READ MORE: The Cult – Juninho

With Christian Vieri nabbing another from the spot after a controversial penalty was awarded only 20 minutes from the final whistle, Atletico went into the second leg with the advantage of a single goal. For a while it looked as if that might not be enough, with Leicester dominating much of the match and threatening to level the tie on several occasions. Unfortunately, late on in the game, Juninho struck again, before club stalwart Kiko sealed the win for Atleti after a tiring Leicester defence had melted away in front of him. There was controversy once again as Garry Parker was sent off early on for taking a direct free-kick too quickly, while Turkish midfielder Muzzy Izzet was felt to have been denied a stonewall penalty of his own.

Speaking after the match, a furious Martin O'Neill said: "I have to say that the referee must seriously look at his performance tonight... I have never, ever been so disappointed for a group of players and actually – funnily enough – for a group of spectators and supporters here as I have been tonight." He described the official's showing as "shocking" and compared the feeling to being left out of the 1979 European Cup final by Brian Clough. Considering that this was only the first round of the UEFA Cup, that may have been a slight exaggeration, but whatever his sentiments on the game the fact of the matter was that Leicester had once more been beaten by Atletico. This time, a win over the Foxes would not be quite such a good omen for their opponents, who would be dumped out at the semi-final stage by Sven-Goran Eriksson's Lazio side.

Were Leicester to have drawn Atletico again for a third consecutive time in Europe, it would have been so improbable as to have tested the limits of coincidence. Instead, their brief reappearance in the UEFA Cup at the turn of the millennium saw them soundly beaten in the first round by Red Star Belgrade, this at a neutral ground after a general election in the war-ravaged Federal Republic of Yugoslavia sparked fears of violent civil unrest. The fact that Leicester have never made it past the second round of a major European competition puts the significance of their current Champions League run in context, and serves as a reminder of just how far-fetched their recent triumphs have been. What is surely even more far-fetched – though seemingly meant to be, from a fatalist's perspective – is that in only their fourth outing in a major European competition they have been pitted against Atletico for a third time.

Much as Juninho had his vengeance on Leicester in a red and white strip back in 1997, so Leicester now have the chance to exact retribution on their unlikely Spanish rivals. While there are many parallels between the clubs – just as Leicester have witnessed Atletico move grounds, so Atletico will now grace the King Power for the first time, and just as Atletico beat fearsome odds to win La Liga in 2014, so Leicester pulled off a comparable coup last season – there are still old scores to be settled between the two. There are a generation of Leicester fans who will still remember the injustices of that UEFA Cup tie in the late nineties, and who have no doubt allowed themselves to dream of seeing the reigning English champions in the Champions League semis at the expense of Los Rojiblancos. While historical precedent favours Atletico, who knows what the result might be at the end of so improbable a tie.


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