LONDON • Claudio Ranieri has said that Leicester City are "very special" to him after signing a new contract yesterday that will keep him at the club until June 2020.
Appointed manager in July last year, the 64-year-old Italian helped Leicester defy pre-season odds of 5,000-1 to win the English Premier League, the first top-flight title in the club's 132-year history.
"From the moment I talked to the owners about their vision for Leicester City, I knew it was something I wanted to be part of for a long time," Ranieri said.
"The energy that exists at this club - from the owners and the staff, to the players and supporters - is something very special. I am very happy and proud that I will be part of it for years to come."
But after writing the Premier League's greatest fairy tale with their astonishing title triumph, Ranieri's side now find themselves under siege from big-spending rivals determined to end their reign.
His men made a mockery of their status as outsiders, as Jamie Vardy, N'Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez emerged as genuine stars and carried Leicester to the title a year after they narrowly avoided relegation.
WE MUST ADAPT
Now everybody must understand that there is no Kante, so we have to think different and close space quicker. We must be smarter.
CLAUDIO RANIERI, Leicester City manager, who knows the Frenchman's departure will be costly, and will turn to new signing Nampalys Mendy and Welsh international Andy King to fill the gap.
Showing a remarkable refusal to crack under pressure despite their lack of big-match experience, they finished a staggering 10 points clear of second-placed Arsenal (71).
But to some, the Thai-owned Foxes' rise was aided by the complete lack of a sustained challenge from any of England's traditional superpowers.
Previous champions Chelsea surrendered the title with a whimper and Arsenal were consistent only in their inconsistency, while Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all underachieved. And Tottenham faltered in the run-in.
Ranieri's side are unlikely to have such an easy ride this time as City, United and Chelsea all look stronger as their new managers splash out on a host of costly signings.
Leicester have tried to keep up with the elite, breaking their transfer record twice within a week as they spent £13 million (S$22.8 million) on French midfielder Nampalys Mendy and £16 million on Nigerian striker Ahmed Musa.
But the club's spending was dwarfed by Paul Pogba's world-record £89 million move to United and City's £47.5 million capture of John Stones, while Chelsea paid £30 million to sign the influential Kante.
It is Ranieri's ability to find a replacement for Kante that will define Leicester's title defence this season.
The loss of the Frenchman seems particularly costly to them, because his extraordinary dynamism makes him one of the players who might have coped fine with the extra workload that the club will have this season, being in the Champions League.
A European campaign represents both a new thrill and a daunting challenge that could weaken their Premier League defence, even if a quirk of the domestic fixture list means they will have home matches after each of their Champions League group games.
Fatigue is certainly likely to be more of a factor for Leicester this term than it was last season, as the team that had the third-lowest rate of possession (42.3 per cent) in last season's Premier League may find themselves having even less of the ball, and thus chasing even harder, on the continent.
With Kante moving on, Ranieri has turned to Mendy and Wales international Andy King to fill the void.
Mendy is likely to be Kante's long-term replacement, but while he gets up to speed with the Premier League, it is the more experienced King who could start in Saturday's opener at Hull.
"Now everybody must understand that there is no Kante, so we have to think different and close space quicker. We must be smarter," Ranieri said.
Retaining the services of England striker Jamie Vardy, who scored 24 league goals before rejecting the chance to join Arsenal in the close-season, ensures Leicester will retain their spiky edge.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE GUARDIAN