LONDON: Team spirit, a new positive approach, the goals of Jamie Vardy and the sheer confidence born of winning matches is the hardly-new secret behind the remarkable appearance of Leicester City at third place in the Premier League.
Much of the credit belongs to veteran Italian coach Claudio Ranieri. His arrival was greeted with scepticism by fans during the summer after the sacking of Nigel Pearson who had overseen a remarkable recovery from the apparent certainty of relegation last term.
The Foxes’ current campaign was again expected to be all about battling and scrapping to stay in the Premier League ahead of a financially crucially next season when the massive new television deal cuts in. Instead fans can dream – for the time being at least – about competing in the Champions League.
Not that Ranieri himself or 11-goal top scorer Vardy seriously expect to be tucked in behind the leaders come next May. But at least they are well on the way towards the 40-point margin which is usually considered a guarantee against a slide back down into the second division.
The former Chelsea manager has been bold, replacing Pearson’s back three with a conventional back four – which suits fit-again Christian Fuchs – and encouraging the attacking talents of not only England striker Vardy but Riyad Mahrez. The latter has scored seven of Leicester’s 23 goals. Indeed, only leaders Manchester City (26 goals) have outscored them.
As long as Vardy and Mahrez keep hitting the net then Leicester can stay buoyant but Ranieri remains concerned that Robert Huth and his fellow defenders continue to leak too many goals, despite having lost only once thus far ahead of today’s home match against promoted Watford.
Hence Ranieri footed the bill, as promised, after Leicester kept a first clean sheet of the season two weeks ago against Crystal Palace to earn their outing to a pizza parlour. The players even tried their hand in the kitchen at the pizza-baking ovens before eating up.
Ranieri has said he has plenty of other unorthodox ‘bonuses’ in mind while the team keep winning. But clearly a taste of his Italian homeland meant more than just a team-bonding exercise.
He said: “There’s a great team spirit and the players enjoy training. They know they can work hard and enjoy. A little bit of luck is important. Luck is the salt, the fans are the tomato — with no tomato there is no pizza. But it is important for us to build a strong foundation so for this reason I want more clean sheets.”
The loss of Argentinian midfielder Esteban Cambiasso does not now appear to have been as serious blow as had been feared, particularly with the engine room work ethic being shown by the likes of Marc Albrighton, Daniel Drinkwater and Shinji Okazaki.
Already Ranieri is turning his thoughts to ways of further strengthening the squad with a possible £10m bid for the Ajax and Poland striker Arkadiusz Milik, formerly with Bayer Leverkusen.