There are similarities between the way that Leicester City have stormed through the Premier L e a g ue a nd how At lét ic o Madrid have won their last two games in the Champions League, against Barcelona and Bayern Munich.
Both Leicester and Atlético are upstarts. They have less to spend than the mighty clubs in their leagues but excel when it comes to hard work, detailed planning and absolute solidarity in their ranks.
Riyad Mahrez has provided magical moments from the right wing of Leicester, and so too did Saúl Ñíguez on Wednesday when he scored a goal for Atlético that possibly transcended any other in the Champions League this season.
Mahrez cost Leicester less than half a million dollars because nobody else saw his potential when he was playing in the lower divisions of French football. Saúl, a 21-year-old from Elche in eastern Spain, has been developed by Atlético ever since he was allowed to drop out of Real Madrid’s academy when he was 12. His potential has never been a secret. Scouts from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United made regular treks to Madrid to check on Saúl as he progressed through every rank of the Spanish national youth teams.
He must be very close to his first cap with the senior team. As the television cameras swept over the 52,000 in the stands on Wednesday at the Vicente Calderón Stadium, they focussed on the smile of one person — Vicente del Bosque, the coach of the Spanish national team.
The fans had witnessed a very special goal. Advancing from the right of midfield but using predominantly his left foot, Saúl wove between five Bayern opponents as if they were f lagpoles on a slalom course. The tackles of Thiago Alcântara, Xabi Alonso and Juan Bernat (all Spaniards playing for a German club) were feeble. Hesitancy by Arturo Vidal and David Alaba meant they made no challenge on Saúl whatsoever. They were beaten by the persistence, balance and single-mindedness of a young Spaniard who dashed 45 yards with the ball. Finally came the shot, curled low and precise beyond the reach of the world’s leading goalkeeper, Manuel Neuer, and into the net off the base of the far post.
Like Mahrez, Saúl is closer to 6 feet tall and combines speed and balance and movement. Both were overlooked in their youth, and both are players who are allowed moments of inspiration in a highly regimented team.
Basking in the afterglow of a victory over Bayern, Atlético’s hard-driving Argentine coach, Diego Simeone, told reporters, “Saúl still has a lot to improve on, of course. “People now want to pin medals on him,