Saturday 24 February 2018

'Don't let up on the home straight' - Leicester boss Ranieri draws Grand National parallel with unlikely title race

Ranieri draws Grand National parallel as he urges Leicester to ensure 'nobody gets past'

Claudio Ranieri in animated mood during yesterday's press conference ahead of Leicester City’s match against Sunderland (Getty Images)
Claudio Ranieri in animated mood during yesterday's press conference ahead of Leicester City’s match against Sunderland (Getty Images)

Jason Burt

When the Grand National was run in 1956, Claudio Ranieri was the four-year-old son of a Roman butcher, growing up above his parents' shop in the working-class suburb of Testaccio, but he got the sporting reference when it was put to him yesterday.

"We are in front but we have to run a lot faster now," the Leicester City manager said, aware of the 'Devon Loch' inference.

"We have finished the (last) corner and now we are looking at the line. We have to hold on tight and stick our elbows out to make sure nobody gets past."

Aintree analogies are forgivable the day before the big race itself, especially with the implied inquisition as to whether Leicester - that opening-day 5,000/1 shot - may fear a late collapse, like the Dick Francis-ridden horse, owned by the Queen Mother, which infamously did the 'splits' 40 yards from the finish 60 years ago.

Leicester are similarly running away with it: seven points clear with just six matches to go as they strive to win the first title in the club's 134-year history, ahead of tomorrow's Premier League match away to Sunderland.

The winning post is in sight. And Ranieri knows it.

The Italian even allowed himself to muse as to what it would be like to welcome Barcelona, Real Madrid or Bayern Munich to the King Power Stadium next season given that Leicester can, this weekend, if results go their way, guarantee themselves Champions League football for next season.

Qualifying for that competition is in itself remarkable - "unbelievable" Ranieri said - but the fact that he has spoken out loud about it is a sign that it is now a given.

It appears to have also marked a change in football England.

Leicester's achievements, whatever happens, have allowed other clubs to dare to dream; to believe that the top four, the title, is not the preserve of an established super-wealthy elite.

"I think now we have opened the heart to everybody, the little normal teams and the normal players," Ranieri agreed.


"How many of our players were playing in non-League or small leagues a few years ago? And that is good for football. It's good publicity for everybody."

An example of that, Ranieri felt, was the reaction of the Crystal Palace supporters to him before Leicester's 1-0 away victory at Selhurst Park last month as he walked down the touchline prior to kick-off.

The main stand stood and applauded.

"It's amazing because at Crystal Palace they clapped me at the beginning, not at the end," Ranieri said.

Why did they do that?

"I think," he added, "because they can imagine that Crystal Palace can do this next season. That's it."

To an extent, Ranieri and his team have altered the accepted social dynamics of football.

Managers such as Tony Pulis, Ronald Koeman and Alan Pardew have come out after recent fixtures against Leicester and declared they want them to go on to win the league which, even more astonishingly, is a sentiment shared by the supporters of every club apart from Tottenham and Arsenal.

There is a genuine depth of goodwill and, well, fun.

There is also an inherent decency. The club are doing things right; so are the team. And the manager.

Selhurst Park a few weeks ago is not the only time that Ranieri has been clapped by opposition fans.

Yesterday, he was reminded of when he knocked Arsenal out of the Champions League in the quarter-finals, winning with Chelsea at Highbury back in 2004. He was applauded by the North Bank.

"Yeah, because there was a different situation there, no?" Ranieri said, offering an insight into part of his motivation.

"Because on Christmas Day. . . who was the sporting director of Chelsea? Remind me? He came from Manchester United."

Did he mean Peter Kenyon (who became Chelsea's chief executive, not sporting director, soon after Roman Abramovich bought the club)?

Dead man

"Peter Kenyon said, 'Ranieri is dead man walking'," Ranieri recalled. "And then everyone watched that I was very strong to achieve something.

"And that's it, I think. It was for this reason they clapped me."

In the end, Chelsea finished second in the Premier League, to the Arsenal 'Invincibles', and went out of the Champions League in a chaotic semi-final against Monaco when the pressure did appear finally to get to Ranieri.

Even that was not, though, a 'Devon Loch' moment.

Ranieri has the image of a nearly man, the perennial runner-up. He is close to ending that. He is close to winning the Premier League. He is close to showing the football world that he is "very strong to achieve something".

Last season Leicester went to the Stadium of Light to gain the 0-0 draw, in the penultimate match, that secured their Premier League status.

This season they go to try to gain a 10-point lead at the top.

Sunderland, languishing four points from safety, are in an altogether different kind of battle, but manager Sam Allardyce is "more confident than ever" that they can beat the drop.

"If we can perform this week like we performed last week that is all I can ask for and hopefully it will bring us probably our biggest three points of the season," he said.

"A win would see us become only the fourth team to beat Leicester this season, but if we play as well as we did last week it will give us the platform to do it."

Allardyce, who dragged his squad off to train on Sunderland beach this week in a bid to blow away the frustration brought about by four consecutive draws, insists any prospective title jitters on Leicester's part will pale in comparison to his own side's issues as they bid to retain their top-flight status.

"There's a lot more pressure on us than there is on Leicester with the position we're faced with, but we've managed to handle that pressure extremely well in terms of our performances."

Allardyce went on to hail the achievements of Ranieri and his players.

"It's Roy of the Rovers stuff for people like me who are old enough to remember Roy of the Rovers," he said. (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Sunderland v Leicester City, Live, Sky Sports 1, tomorrow 1.30pm

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