Supreme confidence, borne out of defeat. Claudio Ranieri says he first believed Leicester City were capable of winning the Premier League on Valentine’s Day, when his team had just lost 2-1 against Arsenal at the Emirates.
Speaking exclusively to Sky Sports News HQ to review the football year, Ranieri said 2016 was the best year of his life, and fulfilled an ambition he had held for over 30 years.
“I’ve never won a title, and so for this reason [it] is the best,” Ranieri said.
“But also I can’t forget when I start because I start like Jamie Vardy – Fleetwood Town – a non-league team, and slowly slowly, I climb all the categories. And if after 30 years I win the title, that means I work so hard, so for that reason I am very, very pleased.”
Leicester lost only three games all season, going on to win the Premier League by 10 points. But strangely it was in that moment of defeat in North London in February, when Ranieri first believed his players could be champions.
“Myself, when we play against Manchester City, Arsenal and Liverpool. The whole world is waiting for us to lose the matches, and we are finished. But we won at City. And I say ‘Oh! What a performance’. And we won against Liverpool. And we lost at Arsenal. But Arsenal, 11 against 10, and they need 95 minutes to beat us. I said to myself then: ‘Oh! Maybe we will go very high’.”
Ranieri has spoken before of the very strong bond within the Leicester squad. He’s adamant that was the key to their extraordinary season. But he says despite what it looks like from the outside, he maintains an authoritative distance from his players.
“I’m not friends with my players but I am very close to my players,” he explains. “When I speak to them, I want to speak to the man, always the man.
A philosophical man and an emotional one, Ranieri says he hasn’t yet looked back on the moment when Andrea Bocelli sang alongside him in the centre circle of the King Power Stadium on the day in May when Leicester were presented with the Premier League trophy.
“At that moment – is not Claudio. Is another person go there, stay with Bocelli. Great atmosphere, but I am out. There is my body there, but not my mind because if I have my mind there, I cry. I didn’t yet see the moment. Maybe in two or three years I go back and watch it because I want to feel something in the future, but not now. I am too involved.”
“It never happened in my life before. The last seven or eight matches, after the true battle, the opponent come to me and say ‘Try to win the league!’ It was amazing. Amazing.”
So how do Leicester follow that? What targets has Ranieri set his players for 2017?
“For the Champions League, a lot of people say ‘Oh, Sevilla! That’s a good draw!’ Why they say this? They won three titles in a row. Is not easy for us but it’s okay. It’s a little dream.
“For the Premier League, you know me – 40 points. We must be safe and I hope the game against Stoke City was a change for us, so that we can start again now.”