Ranieri returns to Stamford Bridge to start difficult December
Fulham became the first Premier League team to blink when they sacked manager Slavisa Jokanovic before the international break. The man they turned to was his former manager as a player, Claudio Ranieri, and it’s so far, so good for the Italian.
The man who brought Andrea Bocelli to sing to the King Power Stadium crowd after leading Leicester to the most unlikely of Premier League crowns has already got a tune out of his new team, beating listless Southampton in his first game in charge.
There was much to be positive about in that 3-2 victory. The Cottagers came from behind and once they were pegged back after taking the lead, they dug deep and found a winner. Better still, Aleksandar Mitrovic was back among the goals for the first time since September, notching a brace, and Andre Schurrle also netted to continue his fine scoring run.
The German, like his new manager, will find himself at former club Chelsea this weekend when Fulham make the shortest of journeys to Stamford Bridge for the West London derby. Ranieri spent four years at the club in a period that many of their fans will either have forgotten or were not there for, coming as it did at the start of the Abramovich era, the last manager before Jose Mourinho arrived and changed the club into serial champions and permanent fixtures in the Champions League.
It was at Chelsea that Ranieri also signed Jokanovic as a player and introduced him to English football. There is another Italian in the home dugout at Stamford Bridge now. Mauricio Sarri has needed no time at all to adjust to English football and imparted his philosophy from Napoli on his new charges with immediate effect. They suffered their first loss of the season last weekend against Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley and they will want to get back to winning ways in the local derby.
Some of the players looking to get one over on Ranieri’s side are his former charges. N’Golo Kante won the Premier League with the Italian before signing for Chelsea, where he won another title, and has since gone on to become a World Cup winner. He’s one of the first names on Sarri’s teamsheet, even if he deploys him in a different role to Ranieri and previous manager (and another Italian) Antonio Conte.
Danny Drinkwater might not be as lucky, the ex-Manchester United trainee became an England international during his time at Leicester with Ranieri but has found himself on the fringes of Sarri’s side and has not played since the Community Shield in August.
Ranieri has already made it clear that he would be happy for his reunion with Drinkwater to last longer than Sunday’s meeting and is willing to take the player on loan in the January transfer window.
The reunions are coming thick and fast for Ranieri. Next up after Chelsea is Leicester City in what is sure to be an emotional reunion for the Italian and the team that he led to the most unexpected of Premier League title wins in the 2015-16 season. The city of Leicester and its football club are still in mourning for the recent death of their chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha and four others in a helicopter crash at the King Power Stadium after their draw with West Ham United in late October.
It was Srivaddhanaprabha and his son Aiyawatt, the club’s new chairman, that brought in Ranieri to replace Nigel Pearson in the summer of 2015 and less than 12 months later, they were the champions of England for the first time in their 132-year history. Many of the players that the Italian turned from relegation favorites to 5000-to-1 Premier League winners are still at the club and will be in Claude Puel’s starting 11 when they line up at Craven Cottage on Wednesday.
Fulham then travel north for Ranieri’s first game outside of West London. They meet Manchester United where the Italian will face the man who replaced him as Chelsea boss, Mourinho. United are struggling for form but have progressed through to the knockout stages of the Champions League after yet another late goal rescued them against Swiss side Young Boys.
Even an out-of-sorts Manchester United is a tough task and Fulham have struggled on the road so far this season. Worse than that is the festive period follows where English football’s hectic schedule rears its ugliest head. Ranieri has little time to assess the problems that stifled Jokanovic’s side as they adjust to the Premier League following promotion from the Championship via the playoffs.
He’s had a solid start in beating the Saints but the new man at Craven Cottage will have to be industrious to ensure he continues in the same vein. A firing Mitrovic is a start for a team that has struggled for goals, finding the right position for the hugely talented Ryan Sessegnon is another thing that needs to be fixed quickly.
It is goal difference that is keeping Fulham at the foot of the table, even with last week’s vital three points, but they are also in a position where a couple of wins will take them well clear of the drop zone. The question is: Can even one of the game’s greatest optimists see them accruing those points with this tough run of games?
If anyone can ring in the New Year with Fulham in fulsome festive cheer then it is Ranieri. Dilly ding, dilly dong.
Fulham manager Claudio Ranieri gives his team instructions during the Premier League match against Southampton at Craven Cottage on November 24 in London, England.