It felt like the end of a surreal journey as Leicester City’s ‘miracle men’ bowed out of the Champions League on Tuesday with their heads held high and applause ringing in their ears.
Despite a 2-1 aggregate defeat by Spaniards Atletico Madrid, the way Leicester tore into Diego Simeone’s team in the second half of a 1-1 draw at the King Power will be the abiding memory of a thrilling European campaign.
Manager Craig Shakespeare spoke afterwards of the desire of his players to experience more such nights.
The reality, however, is that for the likes of Jamie Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and Danny Drinkwater, their chances of further Champions League adventures will be greatly improved by moving elsewhere once the season is over.
Vardy, whose goals propelled Leicester to the most unlikely of Premier League titles last season – a year after the club narrowly avoided relegation – has rediscovered his fire after a post-title funk that cost manager Claudio Ranieri his job.
A hat-trick against Manchester City in December aside, Vardy had all but disappeared this season.
But since he scored in the 2-1 away defeat at Sevilla in the Champions League last 16, first leg – Ranieri’s last game in charge – the England forward has been irresistible.
He scored seven in his last nine appearances, and his 61st minute strike on Tuesday threatened to prolong Leicester’s European adventure before Atletico shut the door.
Mahrez, too, has shown a return to the form that earned him the Player of the Year award last season. Like Vardy, he will attract interest from Champions League clubs when the dust settles on the season.
The club could also come under pressure to hold on to the dependable Drinkwater and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
“I’ve said to the players that they should want more of this and they’ve agreed that that’s what they want,” said Shakespeare, whose contract only runs until the end of the campaign. “All players want to play at the highest level, and the Champions League is the highest level.”
With N’Golo Kante having joined Chelsea at the start of the season, Leicester fans will fear the break-up of the side that made dreams become reality.
Sheakespeare’s immediate priority is to make sure Leicester stay in the top flight after a long flirtation with relegation. After that, who knows?
“I’ve enjoyed it, pitting your wits against one of the best coaches in the world, one of the best sides in the world,” Ranieri’s former assistant said.
“I’m sure at the end of the season I’ll be able to reflect on my own performance as well as the clubs.”