London: Claudio Ranieri’s Premier League story comes full circle on Sunday as he returns in triumph to Chelsea for the final fixture of title-winners Leicester City’s momentous and historic season.
Ranieri’s sacking by Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich in May 2004 set in motion a succession of managerial posts — at Valencia, Parma, Juventus, Roma, Inter Milan, Monaco and the Greek national team — that seemed to confirm his reputation as one of football’s eternal nearly men.
But Leicester’s 5,000-1 success has earned him sporting immortality and when he return to the Stamford Bridge touchline, the 64-year-old Italian will do so as a hero.
“It is amazing,” Ranieri said. “I have been back there with Juventus in the Champions League, but this time is different because this time it is with Leicester, another English club.
“It is emotional. I hope my old fans are happy. When I came here, I said ‘The last match is at Chelsea. Wow.’ Now I come back as a champion. It’s a good story.”
Ranieri’s engaging character and gift for a soundbite made him a popular figure during the three and a half years he spent at Chelsea.
But his tactical tweaking earned him the nickname of ‘Tinkerman’ from the British media and despite four seasons of steady progress, culminating in a second-place finish in 2003-04, he was sacked because Abramovich reportedly felt that he could not win the league.
Nevertheless, he brought in some of the players who were to form the core of the team that would win back-to-back league titles under his successor, Jose Mourinho, blooding John Terry and notably signing Frank Lampard, Claude Makelele, Joe Cole and William Gallas.
It was Chelsea, ironically, whose 2-2 draw with Tottenham Hotspur two weeks ago delivered the title to the King Power Stadium and as the minutes ticked down at Stamford Bridge, a chant of “There’s only one Ranieri!” echoed around the ground.
Leicester’s players will receive a guard of honour from their opponents when they take to the field, but regardless of the formalities, they still have milestones in sight.
– Hiddink farewell -Should Tottenham lose at Newcastle United and third-place Arsenal fail to beat Aston Villa, a Leicester victory will give them a winning margin of 13 points — the joint-second-biggest gap since three points for a win was introduced in 1981.
Jamie Vardy, meanwhile, trails Tottenham’s Harry Kane by just one goal in the race for the Golden Boot, having taken his tally to 24 with a brace in the 3-1 win over Everton last weekend that preceded Leicester’s trophy presentation.
As well as saying hello again to Ranieri, Chelsea’s fans will bid farewell for a second time to interim manager Guus Hiddink, who has managed to steady the ship since succeeding Mourinho in December, as he did during a previous stint in 2009.
Sunday’s game was also expected to be a swansong for legendary captain Terry, who announced in January that he would be leaving at the end of the season, only for Chelsea to reveal on Friday that he has been offered a one-year contract extension.
Terry, who is said to be considering the offer amid interest from two Chinese clubs, is suspended for Leicester’s visit, but the 35-year-old is expected to take part in what could yet be a poignant post-match lap of honour.
Reflecting on his return to the club, Hiddink said: “In general I’m happy with this last half-year. I did it with a lot of joy.
“For Chelsea standards it has been a season with deception (disappointment). We managed to come back and we’re happy to, but it’s not enough for Chelsea standards.”
Chelsea, who can finish no higher than ninth, remain without injured striker Diego Costa, but goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois is available again after illness.
Midfielder Danny Drinkwater is back from suspension for Leicester, but centre-back Robert Huth, formerly of Chelsea, will be serving the second match of his three-game ban.