Claudio Ranieri was relaxing in Rome on Monday following his sacking as Leicester manager nine months after an historic Premier League title win – but the Italian’s presence was everywhere around the King Power Stadium as the Foxes dominated Liverpool on a night of high emotion.
Ranieri spent the day with his grandson at the Bioparco Zoo while the team he took to the title in arguably British sport’s greatest story battled their way out of the relegation zone with a 3-1 win against Liverpool.
And if he managed to find himself in front of a television screen he will have witnessed a familiar sight. It was the return of the Leicester team that won the title last season but one that has been missing in action in the events that led to the dismissal.The 65-year-old may be gone but he was never forgotten on a night Leicester’s fans gave thanks to the manager who made their dreams come true.
Hours before kick-off, as a rainbow formed over the stadium that saw such gloriously unexpected success last season, Leicester supporters were out in force to publicly express their gratitude to Ranieri amid criticism – fairly mild it must be stated – of the club’s Thai owners.
Jack Stephens, an 11-year-old Foxes fan, led the way by organising a pre-match march of celebration for Ranieri. But there were dissenting voices too with a small group of fans holding up a placard outside the stadium which read: “Honest. Humble. Full Of Integrity. LCFC What Have You Done?”
The stadium was awash with Ranieri face masks and more banners ranging from “Hero Godfather” to “Ranieri Your Players And Owners Let You Down. Disgraceful”.
Leicester’s Thai owners were in attendance, exchanging warm greetings with England manager Gareth Southgate and several fans who approached them as they waited in their seats before kick-off.
Some Leicester fans looked close to tears in the moments before the start when the strains of Nessum Dorma played over the loudspeaker. It revived memories of the glorious day in May when the triumphant Ranieri stood alongside tenor Andrea Bocelli in the centre circle as he started the celebrations on the afternoon the Foxes received the title trophy.
The moment was relived on the big screen along with highlights from last season, its conclusion greeted with prolonged, thunderous applause.
It lifted an atmosphere that had been subdued pre-match, with Leicester’s fans nursing a genuine sense of sporting loss for their departed manager.
And then the game began.
Leicester’s players knew they would face searching questions and unforgiving scrutiny no matter how this night played out.
Lose and they would be asked ‘had they lost last season’s magic forever’? Win and they would face inevitable claims – vehemently denied by members of the squad – that they had downed tools to force Ranieri out, only to pick them up again once he had gone.
There was a show of strength before kick-off with hugs and a pre-match huddle, with the answer about their attitude revealed within seconds of the kick-off with a fierce tackle from a fired-up Jamie Vardy that took the ball and flattened Sadio Mane in one movement.
“There has been a lot of unfair stuff written and you’ve seen a reaction from everyone,” said Vardy. “It definitely got us fired up in a good way to put in a reaction on the pitch.”