Leicester City's Claudio Ranieri: The revenge of the Tinkerman
What must Claudio Ranieri have thought when he looked at Leicester City's fixtures after taking the job in July? Their final match of the season is at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.
Chelsea. Where Ranieri spent four years. Where Roman Abramovich openly pursued Sven-Goran Eriksson to replace the incumbent manager. Where Ranieri was sacked by the Russian owner despite reaching the semifinal of the Champions League. Where he was ultimately replaced by Jose Mourinho.
When Ranieri left west London 12 years ago, the Italian was a joke figure in England. He had acquired the nickname "Tinkerman" for his tendency to change his lineups from game to game and no one expected Ranieri to reappear in the Premier League.
When he did, it was at the helm of a team that looked doomed to relegation until the final month of the previous season. Survival seemed to be the main aim.
With nine games left, Leicester top the table by five points and have a dream run-in. It is becoming increasingly likely that the Italian and his team will go to Stamford Bridge as champions.
England underestimated Ranieri. People saw only the affable exterior and not the 64-year-old's core of steel. Even the Leicester players did not quite understand what their new manager was all about. They were worried before the season that his tactics would confuse them. They asked Ranieri not to tinker with systems and keep things simple. He agreed.
He has not quite kept his word, but Ranieri's tactical changes have been more subtle than the Leicester squad expected. In Italy, coaches frequently make adjustments to their formations during games and, when the changes are successful, loudly point out their cleverness in case anyone missed it. The Leicester manager has tweaked his team throughout the season and it is only now, with the title almost within grasp, that people are noticing. It helps that Ranieri is not a boastful character.
Against Watford at the weekend, he made a double change at half-time because Leicester were struggling to break down the home side. Jeff Schlupp and Andy King replaced Shinji Okazaki and Marc Albrighton, and the team switched from 4-4-2 to 4-2-3-1. King shored up the midfield and, crucially, Riyad Mahrez was able to find room. The Algerian began to stretch the Watford defence and his brilliant goal gave Leicester three vital points.
Mourinho once scoffed at Ranieri, claiming that his predecessor at Chelsea had "the mentality of someone who doesn't need to win." Certainly, the Italian does not have the intensity of Mourinho but to doubt Ranieri's competitive instincts is a misjudgment. Much has been made of Leicester's happy dressing room this season -- a stark contrast to the discord at Chelsea before Mourinho's dismissal in December -- but when he needs to be tough, the Italian does not shy away from harsh words.
It is inconceivable that Leicester will finish outside the top four. Even if they are displaced at the top of the table, the scale of their achievement may only become clear next season. When Ranieri was appointed, most observers thought that the likes of Danny Simpson, Wes Morgan, Robert Huth, Danny Drinkwater, Leonardo Ulloa, Albrighton, King and Schlupp had found their level at the tail end of the Premier League. Jamie Vardy would not have attracted the attention of any Champions League clubs and eyebrows were raised when Leicester paid League One's Fleetwood Town £1 million for the striker.
The skeptics might have a point. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that Leicester could win the league this season and be back battling in the basement next season if they do not upgrade and extend the squad. Ranieri may be lucky to have stumbled upon a group of players having career years. Whether Huth and Morgan, for example, can maintain their levels of commitment and workrate is open to question. Vardy is playing through so many injuries that he looks to be in pain just walking after matches. The effort Leicester put into their performances is breathtaking, but it is hard to see this group keeping it up over two or three seasons.
None of that matters now. The feat of a lifetime is within touching distance. Ranieri must take a lot of credit for keeping his squad focused and fit. If he gets his moment of glory at Stamford Bridge, could even Abramovich begrudge it?
And if Chelsea's owner had not already sacked Ranieri once, would he have been on the shortlist to replace Mourinho? Has any other manager had such an exceptional year?
It looks like Antonio Conte will get the Chelsea job, but the 46-year-old tinkers more than Ranieri -- and with less intelligence. He lacks the Leicester manager's charm and recent failures at the Bridge are down to man-management problems rather than talent.
In July it seemed that the fixture computer had played a cruel trick on Ranieri. Instead, the joke might be on Chelsea. The revenge of the Tinkerman has the perfect venue.
Liverpool were so much better in the match against Crystal Palace after the sending-off of James Milner. The 10 men suddenly started threatening and, after Alex McCarthy gifted Roberto Firmino the equalizer, Liverpool looked the likelier winners. That was even before Christian Benteke's disputed penalty.
Klopp explained afterwards why his undermanned side performed so well. Ever the innovator, he had the perfect answer. "We found the solution with 3-4-2," he joked.
Not sure Klopp will be keen to give the tactic another try anytime soon, though.
Can West Ham finish in the top 4?
After the 1-0 win over Tottenham Hotspur last week, West Ham manager Slaven Bilic was asked whether his team can reach the top four. The Croat gurned theatrically and remained silent for a good 10 seconds. "Don't want to think about it," he said.
After the 3-2 defeat of Everton, Bilic may be beginning to ponder the possibilities. West Ham are playing fantastic football and have enviable options in attack. They will pounce on any mistakes by the teams immediately above them.
Tony Evans has been a sports journalist for more than 20 years. He writes for ESPN FC and is former football editor of The Times. Twitter: @tonyevans92a.