Faith in Claudio Ranieri produces miracle for Leicester
Table-topping Leicester reaping rewards as Italian's dedication and thoroughness instills new confidence in his players
If Claudio Ranieri appears at Anfield tomorrow dressed as Santa Claus, the Kop would probably be wise to curb its derision. The extraordinary work of the Leicester City manager is, after all, the kind of gift currently beyond the means of Liverpool's formidable Jurgen Klopp - at least until the January sales.
When Ranieri was still in his thirties and plying his trade in the lower reaches of Italian football, the stewardship of such powerhouse clubs as Juventus and Inter Milan and Chelsea was necessarily a private fantasy. However, he was already showing that from the back streets of his native Rome he had, appropriately enough, brought a certain facility for making miracles.
Sufficiently, certainly, to be seen as a football Babbo Natale - Father Christmas - on the island of Sardinia, where in successive seasons he swept Cagliari from the third division to the glory of Serie A.
His first reward was the job at Napoli, who were recoiling from the 15-month banning of Diego Maradona for a positive cocaine test. His gift to Naples was the developing of Gianfranco Zola as a replacement for the great Argentine.
It was not quite the same thing, but then Zola was a player any club would have liked to find under its Christmas tree.
Now, as Ranieri says, it is miracle season again, this time in the East Midlands of England where the fans have never before had such cause for festive celebration.
Two points clear of Arsenal at the top of the Premier League, six points ahead of Manchester City, nine in front of Manchester United, Ranieri cannot be challenged when he declares: "If we make something special it's a miracle, if not it's still a miracle."
If not a miracle, then at least a wonder of faith in some of the oldest values of a game which of late in the Premier League has featured nothing so dramatically as the splintered egos of such as Jose Mourinho at Chelsea and the besieged Louis van Gaal at Old Trafford.
While Mourinho raged at what he described as betrayal by his players, and Van Gaal wears the injured expression of a poorly valued schoolmaster, Ranieri offers an approach of such simplicity and, yes, humility, his success is hard not to see as a Christmas party stretching far beyond the boundaries of a single club.
Certainly it shines as the bright light against the doomsday background of Stamford Bridge, where Chelsea players Cesc Fabregas and Diego Costa were booed after displaying a level of effort not visible as Mourinho went to his fate, crying against all who had let him down, all who had failed, he would have us believe, to remain at the level to which he, quite exclusively, had carried them.
That was the nadir of a football season so far riddled with rancour and under-achievement - at least if we can forget for a moment the sight of one of the great players of the ages, Michel Platini, arraigned alongside the outrageously unrepentant Fifa president Sepp Blatter.
Ranieri's offering comes from another world. It is one where a man admits that he has learned from his mistakes - the Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel has made a special point of the certainties and confidence imposed by a manager who in another life earned some passing notoriety as the constantly meddling Tinkerman of Chelsea.
And a world, too, where the players, one by one, speak not of an oppressive ego in the manager's office but a constant effort to guide and support as well as lead. By the starkest comparison, the dialogue at Chelsea has been wretchedly self-serving, disgraceful in all that it said about the moral and psychological breakdown at one of the world's richest clubs.
At Leicester, Jamie Vardy, who, with his equally cut-price team-mate Rijad Mahrez, has provided a one-two finish of sensational impact, reports a thoroughness of preparation, and a highlighting of individual responsibility, that has provided a confidence undreamed of in his turbulent days at Fleetwood and Sheffield Wednesday.
"Mr Ranieri," says Vardy, "has taught us the value of preparing ourselves for a game, studying our opponents, becoming aware of their weaknesses. It means that when we go out to play we are fully armed and if we don't succeed, well, we can blame no-one but ourselves."
Ranieri's hard-won philosophy - at the age of 64 - glowed in the aftermath of last week's eleventh league victory of the season at Everton.
"In my time," he declared. "I've managed a lot of top clubs and in them were a lot of champions. Maybe here there aren't any champions but there is a great spirit. I enjoy this work with them. And I believe also that there are good champions inside them. Anyone who watches us must know this.
"To do what we do for two or three matches, okay, but to do it five months now, then there are champions also in my team."
At Goodison Park, Leicester were without such obdurate performers as Robert Huth, Danny Drinkwater and Jeffrey Schlupp - and the ball for much of the time - but they had a collective will and an organisation which was too much for the much more expensively assembled home team. The pace of Vardy and Mahrez, as it has been doing all season, was both a caution and a deadly threat to all efforts to dominate the game.
"When you do this kind of performance," said Ranieri, "it is not only because of a Vardy or a Mahrez. Remember even Maradona alone could do nothing. He needed other players around him. Together we are producing a very good side, one very difficult to play against. We are concentrated on what we have to do and tactically we are at our best and become very dangerous when we have the ball.
"For me, this kind of run is not the first time but for the lads it is. It is important for them to stay calm, to clear their heads and focus on another match.
"It is the same rule if we are playing to be safe in the Premier League - or we have to win a title. It is still a match, another match, and we have to concentrate whatever the circumstances. Of course I don't want to put them under pressure. Why that? Why stress? No, not this year.
"Last year there was stress, not this year. I think they are enjoying the season and they must continue in this way. Yes, if what we are doing is a miracle, I just say enjoy it - and play."
It is the kind of message you might read on a Christmas card. Perhaps someone will send one to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich. If Ranieri was less amiable, and forgiving, he might have done so already.
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