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Ranieri has achieved the unthinkable after being written off at the start of the season .

Claudio Ranieri: How the Tinkerman became a champion

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"Claudio Ranieri - really?"

These were the words of Gary Lineker when Leicester appeared to appoint a Chelsea reject as their new manager, replacing Nigel Pearson in the King Power hot seat.

Upon coming to Leicester, the understated Italian had been sacked five times in twelve years. Owner Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was probably not too concerned with Roman Abramovich's withering assessment that Ranieri would never win a Premier League title, but the club had some serious concerns about maintaining their place in the top flight.

Those concerns were to become Ranieri's mantra. In January, he rewarded his players with champagne and pizza for reaching 40 points and securing survival, despite the fact that they were top of the table.

Leicester City v Swansea City - Premier League

Such is Ranieri's tendency to downplay his achievements that he has spent an entire career being underestimated. Derided at Chelsea as the 'Tinkerman' for his commitment to a rotation policy, he revealed he was never thanked for the foundations he laid at the club which would later see them win their own Premier League titles.

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Deserved recognition

"Nobody said 'thank you'. Why?" he asked.

The 64-year-old could be forgiven for being just a little bitter, though it rarely comes across if he is. He was the one who identified transfer targets Didier Drogba, Arjen Robben, and Petr Cech, but after persuading Abramovich to bring them in, he was unceremoniously sacked. And those same players won Jose Mourinho his first title in England a year later.

Though he would never admit it, there must be some sweet irony in looking down on the Blues as they languish in ninth place. Or watching Mourinho, harbourer of a brashness that Ranieri never possessed, coming unstuck in December as a result of that exact characteristic.

After all, it was the same at Valencia. His two seasons in charge of Los Murciélagos did not witness any silverware, but he was responsible for a lot of the work that led them to the UEFA Cup in 2004.

UEFA Super Cup: FC Port v Valencia

He earned praise for a successful spell with Napoli, the job that first drew Chelsea to pursue him. But Abramovich's later opinion of him somehow seemed to permeate the rest of the Premier League, to the extent that Ranieri was tipped to be the first manager to be fired when he took the Leicester job.

In reality, the first few to go were Brendan Rodgers, Tim Sherwood, Garry Monk, and a certain Jose Mourinho.

Fortunately, the feeling was not reciprocated, as Ranieri's love of England was not dampened by his experiences with Chelsea. A lover of culture, antiques, and art, he looked back fondly on his time in London, and anticipated an opportunity to restore his reputation with a stint in the East Midlands.

Winning ugly

Of course, Ranieri will never be to everyone's taste. For all the grace he conducts himself with, his Foxes are not always able to emulate him on the pitch.

They are not supposed to. He will not have spent his first day in the job plotting to convert Danny Drinkwater, Leonardo Ulloa, and Marc Albrighton into the next Messi, Suarez, and Neymar. To avoid relegation, they needed to learn to scrap.

To Tottenham's horror, Leicester have proven that it is not always the team who plays the best football that wins the trophies. A bolshy defensive partnership of Wes Morgan and Robert Huth has been crucial to Leicester's success.

FBL-ENG-PR-MAN UTD-LEICESTER

An impenetrable spine of Kasper Schmeichel, Andy King, and N'golo Kante has been equally instrumental, even if many rival fans would have struggled to name a handful of Leicester players at the start of this season.

As the title slipped further and further away from Spurs, they have found consolation in a quote from their legendary double-winning manager Bill Nicholson: "It's no use just winning, we've got to win well."

The implication has been that while Leicester extended their lead at the summit with one sluggish 1-0 win after another, at least Tottenham were playing the game the right way - the Pochettino way, as their thrilling brand of football has quickly become known.

A lesson English football will not forget

Reserved as he is, Ranieri has a lesson for Tottenham and the rest. Winning ugly earns exactly the same amount of points as winning with a flourish.

That is not to say Leicester have been totally without flair. Riyad Mahrez has produced some electrifying performances on his journey to being crowned PFA Player of the Year, while Jamie Vardy scored in 11 consecutive games to break what would be the first of the many records the Foxes would go on to destroy this season.

Their achievements would not have been possible without an incredible amount of energy and work rate.

FBL-ENG-PR-SUNDERLAND-LEICESTER

It is a question of self-awareness. Ranieri is only too aware of the resources, or lack thereof, at his disposal. Now, as the Tinkerman turns teacher, he has taught the distinguished Louis van Gaal that the league table is not judged on possession. He has handed Roberto Martinez a bitter reminder that Everton might be better off battling to victories than cruising to losses.

Ranieri's critics - and there have been plenty of them - were keen to lament the return of long-ball football and the emphasis on defending a narrow lead. Initially, even his own players were sceptical. He had achieved little in his most recent post with the Greek national side, and Leicester were set in their ways.

"When I spoke with the players I realised that they were afraid of the Italian tactics,” The Telegraph quotes Ranieri. As it turned out, lumping the ball to Vardy did not produce much beautiful football, but it has certainly brought about a beautiful story.

In the same way that Diego Simeone operates at Atletico Madrid - who have reached another Champions League final - Leicester are perfectly happy for the opposition to have the ball, as long as it's in exchange for three points.

Romance triumphs over millions

Despite Vichai's billions, money has never come into the equation, except indirectly. He may have revamped Leicester's training ground and recruitment team, but in terms of the first team squad, very little has been spent. Instead, Ranieri argues, it is about "heart and soul."

The XI that lined up in the 1-1 draw against Manchester United cost around £23million. To put that in perspective, that is less than half of what Manchester City reportedly paid for Raheem Sterling alone. Mahrez cost £500,000 when he signed from French Division Two side Le Havre. Their wage bill is also remarkably low compared to other clubs in the top half of the table.

So how does Ranieri motivate his players, if the Premier League isn't all about money after all? At Christmas, he gave each of them a little bell to remind them to stay awake and focused.

According to The Mirror, Mahrez has revealed that he is also inspired by what Ranieri tells his players before every game: "Be smart, you are foxes!"

Eccentricity has been the order of the season at the King Power. Leicester have undoubtedly been the feel-good team of the campaign, from free beer and doughnuts for the fans to being the first club to pull off half-and-half scarves and plastic clappers.

Newcastle United v Leicester City - Premier League

Ranieri has played no small part in creating that atmosphere, and it is easy to see why players, fans, and even the media have taken to him so well. The same reporters who witnessed Pearson calling one of their colleagues an ostrich are now looking on as the former Leicester head coach buries his head in the sand, allowing Ranieri to rightly take the limelight.

The ultimate underdog

One of football's good guys, Ranieri did not even watch the moment Leicester did the impossible thanks to Spurs' 2-2 draw with Chelsea, because he had promised to take his elderly mother out to lunch.

Leicester's fairytale is littered with great stories. Just four years ago, former factory worker Vardy was playing for Fleetwood Town. Almost exactly two years ago, Albrighton was released by Aston Villa. And Schmeichel was confirmed as a Premier League winner 23 years to the day that his dad Peter won his first title with Manchester United. But Ranieri's is perhaps the greatest story of them all.

Underestimate him at your peril. The bookmakers have learned that the hard way, having to pay out on odds of 5000/1 thanks to one of the greatest upsets in sporting history - one that could see Ranieri receive a guard of honour at Stamford Bridge.

The ultimate underdog with the ultimate vindication. "Dilly ding, dilly dong" - whatever that means.

What's your favourite Claudio Ranieri memory? Have your say in the comments.

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Topics:
Leicester City
Football
Premier League
UEFA Champions League

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