What say, football gurus?

Feb 14, 2016, 11:00 IST | Dileep Premachandran

After two-thirds of the season, Chelsea - prohibitive favourites at the start - lie in 13th place, a whopping 23 points behind Ranieri's Leicester

If Leicester City do go on to win the English Premier League – and avoiding defeat at Arsenal will take them a massive step closer – they can thank a pre-season orgy in Thailand. A Thai, Vichai Raksriaksorn, is chairman of the club, with Aiyawatt, his son, also instrumental in the decision-making processes.

Claudio Ranieri. Pic/Getty Images
Claudio Ranieri. Pic/Getty Images

It was during the orgy that James Pearson, son of then-Leicester manager, Nigel, and two other players decided to make a video with references to 'slit eye' and much else. The offensive clip found its way on to social media, and father and son were soon out of jobs.

But for the scandal, Pearson would undoubtedly have still been in the job at the start of the season, having engineered one of the great escapes in 2014-15.

With only nine games left in the season, they were rooted to the bottom of the table with 19 points. But instead of the ignominy of relegation, Leicester ended the season in 14th. Their form during the run-in – seven wins, a draw and a loss to Chelsea, with 19 goals scored and only seven conceded – was that of champions.

Age just a number for Ranieri
Raksriaksorn's choice to replace Pearson was Claudio Ranieri, the quintessential nearly man, whose only major trophy in two decades of management was the Coppa Italia with Fiorentina in 1996.

Nigel Pearson
Nigel Pearson

At 63, Ranieri was considered well past his best, and his disastrous tenure with the Greek national team – three defeats in four matches, one of them at home to the Faroe Islands – appeared to vindicate the dismayed reaction from former Leicester stalwarts.

"Claudio Ranieri? Really?" tweeted Gary Linekar, one of Filbert Street's heroes in the 1980s. Tony Cottee, part of the last celebrated Leicester side, at the turn of the millennium, said he was 'astonished'.

At the start of the season, The Guardian's football writers' combined predictions had Leicester in 19th place. Most of those on the staff of The Telegraph also had them as relegation candidates. The bookmaker's offered odds of 5000-1 for a Leicester title.

What do the pundits and bookies know? After two-thirds of the season, Chelsea – prohibitive favourites at the start – lie in 13th place, a whopping 23 points behind Ranieri's Leicester. It's not the manager derided as the Tinkerman during his Stamford Bridge years (2000-04) that has lost his job, it's his old bête noire – Jose Mourinho.

What Ranieri has accomplished is no miracle though. He has merely gone back to the blueprint that worked so well for Martin O'Neill during the club's best years. Between 1996 and 2000, when he left to take over at Celtic, O'Neill led Leicester to 9th, 10th, 10th and eighth-place finishes. The League Cup was won in 1997 and 2000, and another final lost to Tottenham in 1999.

Matt Elliott led a tough defence, Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon epitomised snarl and commitment in midfield, while Cottee and Emile Heskey supplied both skill and physicality up front. In the current side, Wes Morgan is the formidable Elliott-like organiser. N'Golo Kante, signed from Caen in the summer, and Danny Drinkwater, once a star of Manchester United's youth sides, provide the midfield graft, while Japan's Shinji Okazaki offers a deftness of touch, and goals, up front.

Ranieri's side are markedly superior to O'Neill's, however because of the X-factors provided by Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy. Vardy is one of football's Boys' Own stories. Signed from non-league Fleetwood Town for a million pounds less than four years ago, he now tops the scoring charts. His stunning volley to break the deadlock against Liverpool is a strong contender for goal of the season, and he is as assured with his heading as he is with both feet.

Most importantly, Vardy's tireless running sets the tone for those behind him. It's obviously helped that his accomplice is one of the most skillful players the league has seen.

Valuable Mahrez
Mahrez was once seen as too lightweight to make an impact at the highest level. But 14 goals and 10 assists this season tell another story. After appearing to go off the boil around the New Year, he was back to his scintillating best in the 3-1 evisceration of Manchester City last weekend. Ranieri will be the last to take anything for granted though. With four games left in the 2009-10 season, his Roma side were in pole position.

Then came a home defeat to Sampdoria, and though they finished with three straight wins, Roma were pipped to the title by Mourinho's Internazionale. The amiable Ranieri deserves better this season.

Dileep Premachandran is Wisden India’s editor-in-chief

Go to top