Heart Of Football

Silver fox Ranieri leads chase, Jose has hounded look

Claudio Ranieri, who has had run-ins with Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho in the past, now cuts a serene figure on the sidelines as his Leicester City team fly high in the EPL.
Claudio Ranieri, who has had run-ins with Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho in the past, now cuts a serene figure on the sidelines as his Leicester City team fly high in the EPL.PHOTO: ACTION IMAGES

Ranieri's side have in-form players while many Blues players have lost their way this season

We really should not fall into the trap of putting the influence of managers above the performance of players but sometimes it is irresistible.

When Leicester City meet Chelsea tomorrow night at the King Power Stadium, it is a nailed-on certainty that the TV cameras will be on the dugouts.

For once in his life, Jose Mourinho is playing the humble guy, saying if the team fail, it is down to certain players. Now, that is revolutionary talk: With Jose, it always used to be down to the "I".

The players were good but the coach was special.

That was the key to Mourinho's famous dossier when he applied for Claudio Ranieri's job at Chelsea in 2004.

The real Ranieri mark on the Leicester blues so far mirrors something he did before Chelsea fired him. Every team, Ranieri reckons, need a battler who wins the ball and wins in the tackles.

Mourinho did not get Ranieri sacked. Roman Abramovich did that of his own accord the year after the Russian bought the club.

It paid off in terms of Mourinho taking the team largely built by Ranieri to the title.

It's forgotten now that it was Ranieri who had taken an ageing Chelsea side and promoted the likes of John Terry together with the purchases of Frank Lampard, Emmanuel Petit and (when Abramovich did arrive to spread the cash), to cement the midfield, a little fellow called Claude Makélélé.

"He will be the battery of the team," Ranieri prophesied when Makélélé joined the Blues from Real Madrid.

Look in the Leicester City line-up tomorrow and you will see a petit "battery" called N'Golo Kanté.

You won't have to scan the whole field to find him because he will probably be attached to Willian, the one Chelsea player who has maintained his champion pedigree this season.

Ranieri's perception, and working out how to use talent, has taken him around the football world in 30 years as a manager, following a decade as a combative player for his beloved Roma and others.

He's at the right place today because Leicester are known as the Foxes, and Ranieri is something of a silver fox.

When the lenses do close in on them, just look at the faces. These days, it is Mourinho, 52, who looks greyed, careworn and more than a little afraid of the consequences.

Ranieri, 64, actually looks serene, without pressure, almost as if he is shedding the years of stress of his occupation.

The EPL table tells us why.

Leicester, incredibly, are in first place at the start of this weekend while Chelsea are staring down the barrel of places.

Chelsea beating Mourinho's former club Porto to qualify for the last 16 in the Champions League relieved his anxiety, a notch. But he knows, the players know, that Abramovich is unlikely to throw more money at improving the squad in January, unless there is a big improvement in the Premier league between now and then.

Mourinho doesn't dodge the subject. "To be sacked," he says, "you need to have a job.

"This is a new tendency in English football because a lot of opinion-makers have an influence and lots of people without ethics are surrounding the houses."

He means TV pundits, and possibly agents pushing the CV of managers who could do a better job than the incumbent.

Turn back the clock to 2003-04.

The media then joked at Ranieri's expense, calling him The Tinker Man because he rotated the playing squad from game to game.

Abramovich fired The Tinker Man but Ranieri, his face a mask of benign resignation, says to this day, Chelsea are "The Chelsea".

He loved his time there, and loves the club, still, from afar.

The Leicester manager has no time for animosity towards Mourinho. Well, he doesn't speak of any now.

Their paths crossed before either was at Chelsea, and since. Way back in 1999, when Mourinho was a mere assistant to Louis van Gaal at Barcelona, Ranieri plotted three victories in quick succession against them for Valencia, in the Champions League and La Liga.

Mourinho and Ranieri also crossed paths, and verbal swords, in their post-Chelsea days in Italy.

"I am not Mourinho," Ranieri said then. "I don't have to win things to be sure of myself."

Mourinho retorted: "Ranieri is almost 70, he has won almost nothing and is too old to change his mentality. I studied Italian for five hours a day to make sure I could communicate with players, media and fans. When he was in England for five years, he struggled to say good morning and good afternoon."

The final riposte of that period was Ranieri's.

"I'm different," he said.

"I like respect, and I give respect."

At the start of this season, when Leicester's owners surprised the football world by hiring Ranieri for the 16th managerial appointment in his career, Jose offered a truce.

He sent a message welcoming Claudio back to England.

What nobody could have foreseen is them meeting tomorrow with Leicester on such a high perch and Chelsea a lowly one.

I agree with Mourinho's new take that a manager can try everything he knows, but ultimately, it is players who win or lose on the pitch.

We could simplify all this into Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez scoring week after week, as they had started to do late last season under Ranieri's predecessor Nigel Pearson.

We could compare that to Diego Costa and Eden Hazard drying up on the goals front, and Cesc Fabregas losing his form and his place in midfield.

We could simply admire the solidity, the cohesion of Leicester's unheralded defenders against the vulnerability of Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Co.

Ranieri hasn't done a lot to change those things at Leicester. He hasn't tinkered. He has the humility to keep a winning side, although he did move Mahrez from a No.10 role out to the wings to use his speed and guile.

The real Ranieri mark on the Leicester blues so far mirrors something he did before Chelsea fired him. Every team, Ranieri reckons, need a battler who wins the ball and wins in the tackles.

That was why he signed Makélélé. It is why Kanté runs more kilometres, wins more tackles and energises his team.

The battery, or the dynamo.

LEICESTER CITY V CHELSEA

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on December 13, 2015, with the headline 'Silver fox Ranieri leads chase, Jose has hounded look'. Print Edition | Subscribe