If at the start of the season you had said that one team competing in tonight’s clash between Leicester City and Chelsea could move to the top of the Premier League table with victory, it is hard to imagine many believing the side in question would be the King Power Stadium hosts.
However, powered by Jamie Vardy’s goals and an enviable squad togetherness, the Foxes have been English football’s surprise package this season and are good value for their current lofty position.
The appointment of Claudio Ranieri in the summer gained mixed reactions, but the experienced Italian has been nothing short of miraculous in his return to English football.
The 64-year-old clearly deserves massive credit for his influence in Leicester’s dramatic campaign to date and has gone some way to restoring his reputation after a recent disastrous spell with the Greek national side.
However, coming up against his former employers tonight and looking to exact more misery on a team that are currently 17 points below them and just one point above the relegation zone, Ranieri’s role in making the Blues one of English football’s top teams is worth revisiting.
The former Valencia trainer spent four years at the Stamford Bridge helm and was the man in charge of the team when Roman Abramovich shelled out a cool £140 million to buy Chelsea in July 2003.
With the Russian billionaire reportedly tossing up between the Blues and London rivals Tottenham in regards to which club to purchase, the fact that Ranieri had led Chelsea to fourth place and secured Champions League football in 2002-03 was surely a substantial factor in his decision.
In his four years as the West London club’s manager from 2000 to 2004, the quirky Italian consistently improved the team’s points total season-on-season, while he can is accountable for the development of some legendary players.
For the ill-advised or those short of memory, José Mourinho will get credit for developing a Chelsea powerhouse that swept aside everything in front of it for a prolonged period upon his appointment at Stamford Bridge.
However it was Ranieri that brought John Terry from the club’s youth ranks into the senior side, that signed Frank Lampard and recommended the acquisitions of Arjen Robben, Didier Drogba and Petr Čech – before he was shown the door.
Following Abramovich’s arrival, the Italian was given a solitary extra season as the Blues manager, most probably because a desirable alternative such as then-England manager Sven-Göran Eriksson could not be tempted to join.
Although the Russian sanctioned extreme expenditure, Ranieri must be given credit for leading the West London side to second place in 2003-04, behind only Arsenal’s Invincibles side, and progression to the Champions League semi-finals.
Not winning a major piece of silverware at the first opportunity was deemed a failure, with Mourinho taking his place following scooping Europe’s top prize with Porto.
Although the self-proclaimed Special One may well have led the Blues to the Premier League title in his debut campaign in English football, it was using the crux of a team that Ranieri had honed.
There is no doubting Mourinho’s track record and he will go down as one of the best managers to monitor Chelsea from the touchlines, but the groundwork for his success was laid by the crafty Italian.
It seems almost fitting that Ranieri can tonight land a hammer blow on his former club and his managerial successor by leading Leicester to a famous victory.
Regardless of the score, he deserves real respect from Mourinho, Abramovich and the Chelsea fans for his role in helping to propel the club into its current status.