It seemed inevitable yet when it came, it surprised everybody due to the timing. Claudio Ranieri’s sacking, barely 16 days after the club had shown their “unwavering support” through an official statement have shocked the football world. What is more surprising is that the announcement came in the back of a 2-1 away defeat to Sevilla (currently placed third in La Liga table, above Atletico Madrid) in the first leg of Champions League last-16 tie. Oh, did I forget to tell that it was their first ever Champions League appearance and they progressed as group-toppers? Anybody can be forgiven for thinking that they still have a decent chance of progressing to the quarter-finals. And a narrow loss to Sevilla can never be a reason for sacking the manager of a team struggling in the 17th place of EPL table. This points to the question-what really happened in the 16 days before this which prompted the board to go from “Support” to “Sack”? And while any decision taken in a fortnight may seem to be hasty, a closer look may reveal some bigger things. Get ready with your binoculars, people.
The Leicester Project 2015-16 was a fairytale. But in a collective failure of the board, the players and Mr. Ranieri himself, everybody forgot that this was not an imaginary fairytale crafted by an artist. Rather, it is a result of hard work by the players and the manager. Defensive talks started as soon as the title triumph celebrations were over. The point that everybody tried to make repetitively was that “It has been a miracle that the league has been won but it won’t be repeated”. It is true that Leicester’s title triumph coincided with probably the worst performances in many years by the original title-contenders. But that could have hardly undermined their achievement. While the social media mostly remain busy in trolling players and clubs for dreaming beyond the reality, nobody really noticed when Leicester had started doing the opposite. And it became evident from their summer transfer window itself. Kante sensed the lack of ambition in advance and left but he was allowed to leave for just £29.2 million, a sum which looks ridiculously lower and lower with every passing day. Chelsea were desperate for an industrious Midfielder like Kante and would have possibly gone to any length to have him in the team. 29.2 million may sound a lot in general but whoever has followed EPL’s crazily overpriced transfers over the last few years will know how petty that amount is when received for a player of Kante’s importance. Leicester, the EPL champion club could not show the guts which even the perennial midtable finishers Everton had managed to show against Chelsea not so long ago.
And all they got for themselves is a backup goalkeeper, a 19-year-old striker, a decent attacker from the Russian Premier League, a defensive midfielder whom they would not use eventually and a fullback who was sold to the same club in winter. That Leicester managed to retain Mahrez and Vardy was a miracle in itself and it is safe to say that the duo would have left had they foreseen something even remotely close to the position they are in now.
Still, Leicester’s mediocre (or horrible) transfer window was not where it was all lost for them. It was not a scene of complete disarray yet. In December, they beat Man City 4-2 after taking a 4-0 lead. After 15 matchdays, they were in the 14th place but only 5 points off the 6th position. Their UCL group might have been relatively easy but to finish as the group-toppers in the first attempt is not a child’s play. In the process, they also became the first team in UCL’s 62-year-old history to keep a clean sheet in their first four group games- a remarkable achievement in itself. The real danger for Leicester, thus, did not lie in the lack of quality but in the lack of ideas. Ranieri had suddenly reached that point of his managerial life which he had never reached before and he had reached there at the unlikeliest of times, through the unlikeliest of paths. After all those years managing the likes of Florentina, Valencia, Chelsea, Juventus, Roma and Monaco, all he had managed was 9 top-four finishes and 0 league title. The curse did get lifted with potential relegation-contenders this time but when he was finally faced with the pressure of keeping up the standards of a champion team, it proved to be merely a desperate search by a blind man in a completely unknown territory.The Italian struggled to find the right balance between ambition and humility and Leicester looked like an aimless ship in the domestic circuit, bereft of all motivations and hope. League champions being knocked out of FA Cup by a championship club like Millwall is something that does not happen too often and unlike the other cases like these over the years, it was not a consequence of resting key players either.
The Leicester lion had finally become the king but it had put so much effort into the process that the hardly-thought-about aftermath got all messed up. It was a clear lack of motivation and a concrete aim on Ranieri’s part. With his back to the wall, the manager had to resort to some dramatic decisions hoping they will come off but they did not.Musa’s last-moment selection against Sevilla instead of Gray is just one of them. When moves like this go wrong, predictably the player-manager relationships sour. This case was no exception. Sky Sports claimed that Leicester’s senior players told the club’s owners they were unhappy with Claudio Ranieri after the Champions League defeat at Sevilla. And the sack happened quite immediately as if it was the last push the Board needed to clear up Ranieri’s mess as well as to hide their own shortcomings.
Winning the League one season, failing to live up to the standards, losing the strong relationship with the players and backroom staff, getting sacked – It is becoming an increasingly familiar pattern in the Premier League of late. Roberto Mancini first, Jose Mourinho then and now Claudio Ranieri. Ironically now, Mancini may well be the man whom the Leicester board will turn to for a way out of this mess.
And in all probability, he will deliver. For Mancini and Mourinho, it was the collective sky high ambition that brought the downfall while in Ranieri’s case, it was rather the lack of it. The lack of ambition did not open the eyes to reality though which struck too late and too hard. Everybody was progressing in a cozy playful manner until somebody finally discovered the dreaded truth one day. Sadly, unlike the Champions League, here, being the defending champions does not guarantee an exemption from relegation in the league.
Lineker said, “It is inexplicable to me. It’s inexplicable to a lot of football fans who love the game. I shed a tear last night for Claudio, for football, and for my club.” His views echoed most of the general football fans’ views.
But the opposite opinion is here also. Peter Shilton said: “Somewhere along the way everybody’s been waiting for them to get going but Claudio Ranieri hasn’t been able to galvanize them and I think going down would be a disaster for Leicester and I suppose the board have made a very brave decision. Some people have mixed views but relegation is on the horizon. If they stay in the Premier League then they’ve made the right decision.”
Only time can tell the fate of Leicester but as Mourinho put it in his classy tribute to Claudio Ranieri- “CHAMPION OF ENGLAND and FIFA MANAGER of THE YEAR. Sacked. That’s the new football, Claudio. Keep smiling AMICO. Nobody can delete the history you wrote.” True that. Nobody can. Nobody will. Ranieri will forever remain the protagonist of one of the greatest ever Football Fairytales.