Atletico Madrid proved too streetwise to entertain another Leicester City fairytale as they quelled a stirring home display to reach the Champions League semi-finals for the third time in four seasons on Tuesday, winning 2-1 on aggregate.
Jamie Vardy’s first goal at the King Power Stadium in the competition gave English champions Leicester hope of something special after Saul Niguez’s first-half header put Atletico in control, but they fell short in an absorbing 1-1 draw.
Diego Simeone’s Atletico, who arrived holding a 1-0 lead handed to them by Antoine Griezmann’s penalty last week in the Spanish capital, were deserved winners but it was nervy as Leicester threw caution to the wind in the second half.
“I’m full of emotion and pride at the performance of my team,” Simeone, whose side have twice suffered heartbreak against Real Madrid in the final, told reporters.
“I also have to say, what a great performance from our opponents. It was almost a pleasure to compete against them.
“We were living in fear throughout.”
Leicester’s players collapsed to the turf after a breathless second-half revival which, with a better roll of the ball, could have propelled them into dreamland.
As it is they return to the humdrum of the Premier League’s mid-table with little prospect of rubbing shoulders with Europe’s elite any time soon.
No wonder the fans didn’t want to leave.
“The momentum was with us when Jamie scored but it just wasn’t to be,” coach Craig Shakespeare, who has steered Leicester away from unthinkable relegation since replacing sacked Claudio Ranieri in charge of the free-falling champions in February, said.
“I think the whole club, the supporters, owners and players, can be immensely proud of what they’ve achieved.”
Leicester defender Christian Fuchs spoke beforehand about the part the home crowd could play and the wall of noise and fireworks that greeted kickoff would have shaken less battle-hardened sides than Atletico.
The hosts were roared forward and had a sight of goal when Vardy reached the byline and his cutback looked perfect for Shinji Okazaki but his effort flew high over the crossbar.
It was a rare alarm for Atletico in the first half though as their ability to retain possession drew Leicester’s sting.
When their chance to strike came they produced a goal of stunning simplicity. Filipe Luis received the ball wide on the left and his perfect cross was met by a soaring Niguez who powered a header down and beyond the diving Kasper Schmeichel.
Leicester’s already difficult task now took on Everest-like proportions as they were required to score three goals against a defence that had leaked only four so far in the competition.
Shakespeare sent Ben Chilwell and Leonardo Ulloa on at halftime as Leicester went to Plan B — an aerial assault.
Shortly after Griezmann’s electrifying run almost brought a second for the Spaniards, Leicester got their lifeline.
Vardy, so disappointing earlier in the season, showed great awareness to sidefoot the ball high past Jan Oblak after Chilwell’s shot flew across the area.
Suddenly something extraordinary looked possible.
Atletico were rattled and Vardy came close to putting Leicester ahead on the night when his goalbound shot in the 68th minute struck the back of Stefan Savic.
At times Simeone appeared to want to join the action on the pitch, such were his energy levels on the touchline, gesticulating wildly and imploring his players to stand firm.
They did just that and as the minutes ticked away so did Leicester’s belief in another incredible chapter of a story that has captivated world football.