Wednesday 22 November 2017

Ranieri's unlikely lads determined to resume abnormal service

The big guns are coming back stronger, but Leicester won't relinquish their title without a fight

Claudio Ranieri: nothing will be the same again. Photo: Getty Images
Claudio Ranieri: nothing will be the same again. Photo: Getty Images

Paul Wilson

One of the many reasons for Claudio Ranieri's popularity is his fondness for picturesque speech, simplified imagery that translates naturally into newspaper headlines.

Last season saw pizza-based incentives and then alarm bell motifs worked close to exhaustion. Now the Italian is warming to his habit of likening Leicester's rapid striking style to the RAF. As in: "Musa (new £16m record signing Ahmed Musa) has lots of speed. I don't know if he is as quick as Jamie Vardy but it's very important to have another airplane in our squad."

A 23-year-old Nigerian striker signed from CSKA Moscow, Musa fancied a move to England and chose Leicester despite interest from Southampton, Everton and West Ham. Well you would, wouldn't you? Leicester are champions. They will be playing in the Champions League this season. Even their pre-season friendlies have gone up in the world. Following a loosener at Oxford United on Tuesday they will be competing against Celtic, Paris Saint-Germain and Barcelona before the Premier League gets under way on August 13 with their kick-off at Hull.

What Musa might struggle to understand is how odd all this still seems. This time last year Ranieri had just been announced as Nigel Pearson's successor and had yet to take a full training session. If the Leicester squad was as underwhelmed as some of the club's supporters by the appointment, Ranieri did well to win the players over at all, never mind doing so in brisk fashion and then making the honeymoon last all season.

It still staggers belief to reflect on what Ranieri and his squad constructed from almost nothing in under a year. It is true that Pearson had assembled a solid nucleus of players and the spirit within the squad was demonstrated by their escape from seemingly inevitable relegation the previous season. But no one was talking about the RAF 12 months ago, much less the Champions League, the title, or making five of the nine richest clubs in Europe look a bit silly.

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Leicester are one of the reasons why Louis van Gaal's three-year plan at Manchester United was ditched after two indecisive seasons. Leicester were the last opponents Jose Mourinho saw as Chelsea manager, the side that thoroughly exposed Manchester City's inadequacies at the Etihad, the audacious goalscorers that put Liverpool's revival under Jurgen Klopp into perspective. What Musa probably needs to get his head around is that such a perfect season, when everyone stays fit and shots from all angles keep going in, will be impossible to replicate. It was a one-off, a dream. Or was it?

Common sense suggests that if Leicester can come from nowhere to gain prominence, with a new manager and players fresh from a relegation scrap, they ought to be able to do at least as well now that they have experience, respect and enough money in the bank to fund record signings.

As of Ranieri's first anniversary they had the same squad, and though they lost a key asset when N'Golo Kante's switch to Chelsea was confirmed yesterday, they will make a significant profit on a player who cost £5.6m a year ago and appear to have signed a replacement already in Nampalys Mendy. Maybe the former Nice and Monaco midfielder will not be quite the revelation Kante was last season, earning nominations for Player of the Year and a call-up for France, and even in the unlikely event of Riyad Mahrez sticking around, there might not be as much space behind defences for formation-flying this time round.

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Yet even without the element of surprise Leicester should still be hard to beat, they are unlikely to return to zeros as quickly as they rose to heroes.

Against that, there are two considerable challenges to be overcome. The first is Europe. Leicester won the title with no distractions while their main rivals struggled with midweek commitments. The Champions League involves more fixtures, often demanding ones, and requires a stronger and more flexible squad. Ranieri altered as little as possible last season because he had no need. This time he could be back to tinkering as there are bound to be occasions when one competition or the other has to be prioritised. Big clubs around Europe have performed this balancing act for years, and have squads deep enough to cope. Leicester will be new to it, and their squad is neither sizeable nor rich in European experience.

The other big difference was best expressed by Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha, Leicester's vice-chairman. "The big teams are going to come back bigger," he said. "They are not going to let anything like last season happen again."

This much appears to be true, with the Manchester clubs in particular powering up with new managers and unlimited budgets, and Antonio Conte tasked with rebuilding Chelsea in an attempt not to get left behind.

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It could even be argued that Leicester only seized their chance last season because the usual title suspects were in self-inflicted stages of limbo.

Manchester City were waiting for Pep Guardiola, United waiting in vain for a sign of improvement. Chelsea, like Liverpool, were not expecting to have to change manager, and though Arsenal and Tottenham were well placed to take advantage, by the time they realised, Leicester were too far in front.

What was glorious about last season was that Leicester were too far in front almost all of the time. Sunderland were not expecting to change manager, yet half an hour into their opening game, with Leicester three goals to the good, Dick Advocaat was fading into history.

Right from the start it was clear that whatever Ranieri's Leicester were about, it was not dithering. It will be a surprise if they attempt anything different this time, though we can expect dithering to be eliminated at both Manchester clubs and several others besides.

This is going to be the season when normality returns, when the Premier League reasserts itself as a tough contest that can only be won by famous teams with deep pockets, or so everyone supposes. Yet whatever Leicester do, they have already done enough. Life will never be quite the same again. As Gary Lineker will prove when he presents Match of the Day in his underpants, it is dangerous to suppose anything and normality can be seriously overrated.


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