Claudio Ranieri was relaxing in Rome on Monday following his sacking as Leicester manager nine months after an historic Premier League title win – but the Italian’s presence was everywhere around the King Power Stadium as the Foxes dominated Liverpool on a night of high emotion.
Ranieri spent the day with his grandson at the city’s Bioparco Zoo while the team he took to the title in arguably British sport’s greatest story battled their way out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win against Liverpool.
And if he managed to find himself in front of a television screen he will have witnessed a familiar sight. It was the return of the Leicester team that won the title last season but one that has been missing in action in the events that led to the dismissal.
The 65-year-old may be gone but he was never forgotten on a night when Leicester’s fans gave thanks to the manager who made their dreams come true.
Hours before kick-off, as a rainbow formed over the stadium that saw such gloriously unexpected success last season, Leicester supporters were out in force to publicly express their gratitude to Ranieri amid criticism – fairly mild it must be stated – of the club’s Thai owners.
Jack Stephens, an 11-year-old Foxes fan, led the way by organising a pre-match march of celebration for Ranieri. But there were dissenting voices too with a small group of fans holding up a placard outside the stadium which read: “Honest. Humble. Full Of Integrity. LCFC What Have You Done?”
The stadium was awash with Ranieri face masks and more banners ranging from “Hero Godfather” to “Ranieri Your Players And Owners Let You Down. Disgraceful.”
Leicester’s Thai owners were in attendance, exchanging warm greetings with England manager Gareth Southgate and several fans who approached them as they waited in their seats before kick-off.
Some Leicester fans looked close to tears in the moments before the start when the strains of “Nessum Dorma” played over the loudspeaker. It revived memories of the glorious day in May when the triumphant Ranieri stood alongside his fellow countryman, the tenor Andrea Bocelli in the centre circle, as he started the celebrations on the afternoon the Foxes received the title trophy.
The moment was relived on the big screen along with highlights from last season, its conclusion being greeted with prolonged, thunderous applause.
It lifted an atmosphere that had been subdued pre-match, with Leicester’s fans nursing a genuine sense of sporting loss for their departed manager.
And then the game began.
Leicester’s players knew they would face searching questions and unforgiving scrutiny no matter how this night played out.
Lose and they would be asked ‘had they lost last season’s magic forever’? Win and they would face inevitable claims – vehemently denied by members of the squad – that they had downed tools to force Ranieri out only to pick them up again once he had gone.
There was a show of strength before kick-off with hugs and a pre-match huddle, with the answer about their attitude revealed within seconds of the kick-off with a fierce tackle from a fired-up Jamie Vardy that took the ball and flattened Sadio Mane in one movement.
“There has been a lot of unfair stuff written and you’ve seen a reaction from everyone,” said Vardy. “It definitely got us fired up in a good way to put in a reaction on the pitch.”
|Working harder or a different style? Leicester’s running stats in past five games|
|Fixture||Distance covered (km)||Sprints||% of time spent high-speed running|
|3-1 win v Liverpool||117.75||547||1.88|
|2-0 loss to Swansea||109.58||422||1.44|
|3-0 loss to Man Utd||108.61||546||1.92|
|1-0 loss to Burnley||104.80||486||1.68|
|3-0 loss to Southampton||103.28||490||1.78|
A reminder of what Leicester had been missing this season came with their opening goal – made from a title-winning template, long ball from Marc Albrighton, Vardy away and clear with pace before a drilled finish.
Vardy had only scored five league goals before this game but he did not simply hit the target twice, this was a flashback to last season as he terrorised Liverpool all night with dash and a real air of menace.
The England striker, misfiring almost all season, was one of those forced to defend himself amid stories of dressing-room rebellion and he slumped to his knees in a mixture of celebration, exhaustion and relief at the final whistle.
This was a Leicester performance that would have sat easily among some of their best last season but the question remains – why has it taken the departure of the manager to coax it out of these players?
It was the perfect night for Leicester’s caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare, who opted for default title settings by effectively selecting those who brought the Premier League to the King Power Stadium, the excellent Wilfred Ndidi for N’Golo Kante apart.
Shakespeare went with what he knew, played to Leicester’s old and obvious strengths and was rewarded with a performance plucked from last season’s catalogue of successes that will step up his own claims to succeed Ranieri.
Leicester owners appear to have no obvious instant replacement, although the names of Guus Hiddink and Roberto Mancini still warranted mention around these parts on Monday.
So Shakespeare is the first cab off the rank and the manner in which he turned the dial back to last season will surely have impressed the decision-makers.
Despite clear unease, and in some cases unhappiness, among Leicester supporters about the circumstances surrounding Ranieri’s exit, this was not transmitted to the pitch as they set those emotions aside to help inspire a vital victory.
It was a night of triumph tinged with regret – elation at a crucial win but sadness for an absent friend.
On a night where unity was a narrative, the abiding memory will be the scene in the 65th minute when the whole ground rose, thousands of torches lit up The King Power Stadium and every banner held aloft, as the name of Ranieri resounded around the ground.
The prolonged applause and standing ovation was an indicator of Ranieri’s stature. He may have been at home in Rome but he was here in spirit.
Leicester’s players mended fences broken in the fallout from this damaging episode that has brought so much criticism and removed much of the goodwill earned last season.
This was a night, however, that was as much about Ranieri as the players he left behind.
And amid the delight, there will be lingering regret it took his departure to prompt the return of the side he took so wonderfully, so unexpectedly, to the Premier League title.
It was a night to say, in the words of the biggest banner on show: “Grazie Claudio.”