Thursday 19 October 2017

Shades of Clough as maverick Ranieri keeps Foxes in hunt

Watford 0 Leicester City 1

Riyad Mahrez celebrates with team mates after scoring the first goal for Leicester Photo: Getty
Riyad Mahrez celebrates with team mates after scoring the first goal for Leicester Photo: Getty
Leicester City's Riyad Mahrez (left) appears to injure himself Photo: PA
Watford's Odion Ighalo has a header saved by Leicester's Kasper Schmeichel Photo: Reuters

Gerry Cox

Just like his team are looking to emulate Nottingham Forest's 1978 League champions, there is a bit of Brian Clough in Claudio Ranieri's maverick approach, giving his players a whole week off recently just as the title race was entering its final straight.

He can play mind games like Alex Ferguson, constantly underplaying Leicester's title chances while at the same time putting pressure on his rivals.

And like Arsene Wenger, he can be economical with the truth, a striking example coming straight after Riyad Mahrez's 16th goal of the season sank Watford and put Leicester five points clear of Tottenham.

While Ranieri was declaring, almost with a straight face, that he and his players had no idea their rivals had drawn at lunchtime, his leading goalscorer, Jamie Vardy, was telling reporters how he and his team-mates had been buoyed by the result as they sat and watched the north London derby in their team hotel.

"Everyone saw the result earlier," said Vardy, who missed an early chance to take his season's tally to 20 goals when he shot wide from close range against Watford.

"I watched the first half just before I went for our pre-match meal, and there were quite a few of us. We're footballers. We like to watch football."

The White Hart Lane result, with both rivals dropping two points, was ideal for Leicester, but as Vardy said: "At the end of the day we know it is up to us and we've got to keep performing ourselves.

"No matter what the result earlier, we knew that we needed to come to Watford and get three points. We've done that and we're walking away happy."

Mahrez was responsible for that, seizing on a poor defensive header from Jose Holebas to curl an exquisite shot past Heurelho Gomes from 20 yards early in the second half.

Leicester were not at their best, but did not need to be against an uncharacteristically sloppy Watford.

Quique Sanchez Flores joined the growing band of managers to declare himself a fan of Leicester's unlikely challenge - as Tony Pulis had done last week.

"It is good," said Ranieri. "It is a good energy that is pushing us."

The Italian insisted that it was not a gamble to let his players take a week off after losing to Arsenal three weeks ago.

"I wanted to work with them all week but I believed they deserved a break. We gave them a fitness programme and they did it.

"One thing is to stay together (in training), another thing is to stay with family. You are more focused and more professional. There are two kinds of training sessions. One with us and one when you are alone."

Vardy agreed: "It gave us a much-needed break and let us recharge our batteries. Every single one of us went away and did our own stuff while we were away.

"We all made sure we took our GPS units with us, checking heart rates and that. So the staff at the club know we've been doing our own work while we've been over there on our vacations.

"It wasn't a gamble at all. You know with our lads everyone will take it seriously and we'll carry on doing our own training in our own time."

Like most of his team-mates, Vardy was scrapping for survival at this time last year, when seven victories in their final nine games took Leicester from bottom to safety. A similar run will see them home as champions, although they repeat football's favourite cliche at every opportunity.

Charismatic

"We're just taking each game as it comes," said the striker. "There's only one game I'm looking at and that's Newcastle at home next Monday.

"No one expected us to be top so we're just enjoying our football. Everyone said we were relegation fodder. It was every newspaper and every pundit, wasn't it? There is still a long way to go and you will always have doubters, no matter how far you go."

Vardy said Ranieri had subtly changed the side Nigel Pearson built. "He has not had to tweak too much, but he has done certain things. He knew he had a good set of lads and was not going to change too much."

The players clearly enjoy working with the charismatic Italian, who is winning over his detractors.

"I don't know why he got dismissed," said Vardy of the doubters. "He has got a great CV. He has come in, we have done well and are top of the league.

"As long as we are fighting for each other and playing well he is more than happy.

"He does not mind if we win, lose or draw. As long as we are showing that spirit between the boys, and if we are trying, he is more than happy." (© The Daily Telegraph, London)

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