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When it pours, it’s Ranieri

Claudio Ranieri. Photo courtesy: The Guardian
Claudio Ranieri. Photo courtesy: The Guardian
Claudio Ranieri. Photo courtesy: The Guardian

Leicester City are sitting pretty on the top of the Barclays Premier League table. Yes. Let that sink in slowly. No, it’s not Manchester City we’re talking about. Or Arsenal. Or Manchester United. Or Liverpool. And definitely not Chelsea. The famed Big Five of English football have been toppled. They are in disarray. And amid the ruins has risen the proverbial phoenix.

Who would have thought that a team which was languishing at 20th only 8 months ago would go on a run so astonishing that not only would they avoid relegation that season, but soar to No. 1 in the next. To the outsider, there are two people responsible for Leicester City’s amazing revival – Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez.

This season, Jamie Vardy has scored 15 goals in 16 games, including an 11-match scoring run that is now a Premier League record. To put things in perspective, Cristiano Ronaldo has scored 8 goals and Lionel Messi has 3 in 15 games.

Riyad Mahrez has been a revelation with 11 goals, 7 assists already this season. Apart from the goals and assists, the Algerian midfielder has made and completed the most dribbles and has created the second-most big chances. This all-round efficiency, coupled with Vardy’s red-hot form in front of goal, has taken Leicester City to unimaginable heights. And some say they could even win the league come May.

However, while Vardy and Mahrez steal every photon of the spotlight, one man toils tirelessly and soundlessly behind the scenes. Experts, pundits, footballers, followers and fans all agree on one fact: Leicester wouldn’t be Leicester without their quiet, unassuming manager – the grey-haired, bespectacled Claudio Ranieri.

Sacked

Against Chelsea on Monday night, the universe came full circle for the Italian manager. It was a little over 11 years ago, on July 1, 2004, that a certain Roman Abramovic decided to take over a club that was faced with the serious threat of financial ruin. While the Russian billionnaire bailed Chelsea out, the club’s then manager, Claudio Ranieri, knew his time was up.

Chelsea had just registered a win over Leeds United, when Ranieri and Abramovic went to lunch together. In his autobiography, Proud Man Walking, Ranieri writes the two of them were making small talk over a cocktail when Abramovic asked: “So when do the players come back now?” Ranieri smiled and replied: “Whenever the new coach wants them.” Two weeks later. Jose Mourinho addressed the press and came up with that line that has come to define him: “Please don’t call me arrogant, but I’m European champion and I think I’m a special one.”

It was a bittersweet departure for Ranieri, who build the foundation of a Chelsea that would dominate the Premier League in the years to come. He brought in the man who would come to symbolise the club itself – Frank Lampard – for 11 million pounds in 2001. He also brought in Joe Cole, Eidur Gudjohnsen and William Gallas. It was Ranieri who first gave John Terry the captain’s armband. And by the time he left, he had completed the transfers of Petr Cech and Arjen Robben, while paving the way for Didier Drogba’s arrival. Chelsea finished second that season – their highest league position in 49 years. They also reached the semifinals of the UEFA Champions League, a feat they had never achieved before.

For all his good work, however, there was never any acknowledgement – least from new manager Mourinho. But Ranieri, in his inimitable, humble style, said no thanks were in order. “Nobody needed to tell me thank you.”

Ranieri moved on to Valencia in Spain, and then on to Parma, where he helped the Italian outfit avoid relegation and ultimately end at 12th on the table. In his next job, he continued to showcase his skills at effecting the great escape. Juventus, who were playing in Serie B just a year earlier following the match-fixing scandal, finished 3rd in Serie A with Ranieri at the helm, and in the next season, they climbed to second. It was at Juventus that Ranieri was the subject of ridicule from the the then Inter Milan manager Jose Mourinho, who had replaced him at Chelsea four years earlier. Mourinho even called Ranieri a “loser”.

Following mixed results in charge of AS Roma and Inter Milan, Ranieri was appointed manager of French club Monaco. He led Monaco to their first Ligue 2 title, which also promoted the club to Ligue 1. And after a brief stint with the Greece national team, Ranieri was appointed Leicester City’s new manager.

Back

Ranieri’s return to English football was widely mocked by the press and pundits alike, but many of those naysayers have since been forced to eat humble pie. Most of all, Jose Mourinho, who returned to manage Chelsea.

Before the start of this season, Mourinho called Ranieri to wish him luck on the new job. At the end of 16 games, no one, not even Ranieri, and certainly not Mourinho would have anticipated Leicester sitting 20 points and 15 places above Chelsea, who are one point away from the relegation zone.

The ever-practical Ranieri, however, maintains his first priority is to avoid relegation. “For our fans we are top of the league, for my players we need another five points.”

“Don’t laugh. It’s true… Let me achieve 40 points, then I’ll think about what is the next goal. But until 40 I think only 40 points.”

Ranieri may be thinking only about avoiding relegation, but Leicester City fans are nursing dreams of a top four finish to the season, if not the title itself.

Call it the Ranieri effect.

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