EM – Claudio Ranieri has the steel behind the smile to thrive under Watford’s ruthless regime

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Tony Evans

Claudio Ranieri made one of the great achievements of the last 20 years when he led Leicester City to the Premier League title. Five clubs and half a decade later, a new phase in his career begins for Watford when Watford meets Liverpool on Vicarage Road on Saturday.

Watford has split from eight managers since Leicester sealed their Premier League victory. At Watford, the beginning of the end begins right at the beginning.

Besides Pep Guardiola, Ranieri, 70 next week, and Jürgen Klopp are the only two managers in the top division who can boast of winning the title in England. Ranieri was sacked nine months after the Leicester club’s greatest success. One day they will build a statue of Klopp on Anfield Road.

The German legacy is assured. Ranieri is forever destined to be seen as avuncular but somewhat lightweight, an image likely aided by that Watford spell.

He doesn’t seem right for Vicarage Road, but would have the same one can also say of Leicester. After inheriting a team that won the championship, Ranieri tried to change the team’s style and shape. He was persuaded by the players to return to whatever methods they saw fit.

It worked wonderfully. This was not a sign of weakness. Ranieri is a lot tougher than he looks. For all of his smiling charm, he shouldn’t be underestimated. There is steel behind its seemingly light touch.

Adaptability was key to functioning in Leicester. He has to be flexible at Watford. He can’t think of playing silky football no matter what he says to the public. His latest role, his 22nd in management, is about finding results, identifying the strengths of the team and making the most of them.

The last time Liverpool visited Vicarage Road was the tense start for lockdown amid the growing pandemic. The Champions-in-Wait was swept aside by a physical, wild Watford 3-0. That game ended an 18-game winning streak in the Premier League and ended one of the most sublime spells in football produced by any Liverpool team – or any other. On this day the tide seemed to be turning against Klopp.

What distinguishes the two managers is their reaction – not to adversity, but to triumph. Both Klopp and Ranieri created trend-setting moments. Clubs like Leicester shouldn’t win titles in the modern age. Liverpool had spent three decades without finishing the season at the top of the league. These achievements caused great joy in the respective cities.

One of the most difficult challenges in the game is maintaining a winning mentality. The first success is never easy, but the next season has even more pitfalls. Opponents increase their game. The action on the pitch is only part of the theme, however. Dealing with praise and admiration is almost as difficult as dealing with failure. It can interfere with the focus.

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Leicester lost its way in defending the title. Ranieri basked even more than his squad in the afterglow of the last campaign. That cost him his job. Klopp did not tolerate any distraction due to his Bundesliga experience with Borussia Dortmund.

Last season did not go as well as Liverpool had hoped – injuries hurt them and their rivals began to work out their strategy – but the loss of concentration from the aftermath of the league win was beyond their fault. It’s easy to lose the lead and Ranieri did it at Leicester. The Italian has to be at his best to survive long at Watford, but Klopp will expect a fight.

Liverpool have regained some of their pre-pandemic bragging rights, but Ranieri won’t be an easy touch. He has won as many Premier League titles as his Anfield counterpart and will be eager to prove himself again.

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