LONDON. — As Claudio Ranieri returned to Leicester’s Belvoir Drive training base on Monday to start plotting the latest chapter in his club’s fairytale challenge for the English Premier League soccer title, it was hard to believe that just seven months ago the Italian’s arrival at the plush facility was greeted with widespread ridicule.
Ranieri’s unfashionable club head to title rivals Arsenal on Sunday sitting five points clear at the top of the table as they chase the most remarkable triumph in the history of English football.
Only last year Leicester were fighting a desperate battle to avoid relegation under Ranieri’s predecessor Nigel Pearson.
Yet, after Saturday’s stunning 3-1 win at Manchester City, Ranieri’s men find themselves installed as the bookmakers’ favourites for the title.
And, in an era where the “greed is good” mantra of the league’s superpowers grows more unpalatable by the year, Leicester are also the choice of neutrals captivated by the unexpected renaissance of the colourful Ranieri.
“Claudio Ranieri? Really?” tweeted former Leicester and England striker Gary Lineker before describing the July appointment as an “uninspiring choice”.
Former Tottenham boss Harry Redknapp questioned how Ranieri could “walk back into the Premier League” after being sacked as Greece coach, while a significant section of Leicester’s fan base were equally scathing.
Ranieri had been away from England for 11 years since being sacked by Chelsea, where his constant rotation of the team led him to be unflatteringly labelled “the tinkerman”.
The 64-year-old has never won a top-flight league title during an itinerant 30-year managerial career, which featured stops at 12 clubs including Juventus, Roma and Inter Milan, while his last major silverware was the 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia.
However, Ranieri’s critics have long since changed their tune as the Italian’s folksy wisdom and relaxed demeanour have proved exactly what Leicester needed after the tempestuous Pearson regime.
Ranieri has shrewdly maintained the team-first mentality espoused by Pearson, while employing a far more laid-back approach that allows the likes of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez the freedom to express themselves on and off the pitch.
“They so need to be relaxed and not harassed. They expect calm and respect in the dressing room, so if you want to be a prima donna, they won’t forgive you for it,” Ranieri told the Daily Telegraph.
“I told the players that I trusted them and would speak very little of tactics.”
Crucially, Ranieri won the support of his players with his deft handing of a potentially disastrous pre-season incident when Vardy abused a fellow gambler in a Casino by repeatedly calling him a “Jap”.
Coming soon after Leicester’s Thai owners had sacked three players for separate racist behaviour, it was suggested Vardy would have to be sold, especially since the squad included Japanese forward Shinji Okazaki.
But Ranieri managed to keep the peace and Vardy has responded with a remarkable haul of 18 goals.
From that moment on, Ranieri has been at his engaging best, one minute likening Leicester to “the Premier League’s Forrest Gump” and the next taking his players for pizza and serving them cake as rewards for their success.
Learning from his experiences with the often brutal demands of Italian training camps, Ranieri has been giving his players at least two days off a week in a bid to keep them fresh.
The results have been apparent in a series of stirring come from behind wins and, more recently, their ability to out-work supposed superior opponents.
With Champions League qualification looking increasingly certain, the season is already destined to be remembered as a golden period for Leicester.
But Ranieri, asked if Leicester can really win the title, won’t stop his players from dreaming of even greater glory.
“I don’t know, but it’s fantastic that we’ve earned the question,” he said. “In an era when money counts for everything, I think we give hope to everybody.” — AFP.