Jamie Vardy pays tribute to Claudio Ranieri as Leicester march on

‘It is not about being nervous. We have to fight, build and get the winner’s mentality’

Jamie Vardy: ‘No one gave us a chance at the start of the season. Everyone said we were relegation fodder.’ Photograph: Afp

Jamie Vardy: ‘No one gave us a chance at the start of the season. Everyone said we were relegation fodder.’ Photograph: Afp

 

Occasionally, as Leicester forced their way into the Champions League places during the autumn, it appeared none of this could be happening by design. You dared not hold out much hope for a team that overturned deficits, sometimes by the skin of their teeth, in six of their first 11 games; the whiff of Heath Robinson about their rapid elevation never seemed far away.

What a disservice that now seems. Claudio Ranieri finds new ways of charming his public every week but more pertinent is the rapidness with which, behind the bells and belly laughs, he has developed in his team the kind of thick skin that their nearest title rivals have spent years – and millions – grasping for.

As Watford hacked and slashed at whatever opportunities arose to ask questions of their lead, the dominant impression was that this sleek, composed Leicester side is in many ways a far cry from the one that was scampering its way back into games five months ago.

The joy in Leicester’s football showed itself through another marvellous goal from Riyad Mahrez, who found the top corner after a sloppy defensive header from José Holebas fell perfectly for him, but most impressive was the cold-blooded way in which they managed the situation. Odion Ighalo’s late chance aside, Watford were held at arm’s length throughout the second half and there never appeared any prospect of Leicester allowing the kind of siege that might yield more.

Managers and players are keen to talk up their handling of pressure at this time of year but both on and off the pitch Leicester seem uncannily impervious. Jamie Vardy, asked how he had absorbed Wednesday night’s results, when Tottenham and Arsenal both lost, said that he had been more interested in playing the computer game Call of Duty.

Second Captains

The striker, whose industrious evening’s work should have brought a first-half goal, paid more attention to the north London sides’ draw on Saturday lunchtime but said no emotions were invested in the outcome.

“There were none, none at all,” Vardy said. “We know it is up to us and we’ve got to keep performing ourselves. No matter what the result was earlier, we knew we needed to come to Watford and get three points. We’ve done that and we’re walking away happy. It was massive.

“No one gave us a chance at the start of the season. Everyone said we were relegation fodder. The pressure we had was up until we knew we were safe [from relegation]. We’ve been on a good ride and we’re going to keep enjoying it, simple as that.”

That enjoyment stems largely from the atmosphere cultivated by Ranieri, who seems unable to make an inaccurate call at the moment. His half-time introduction of Andy King and Jeffrey Schlupp tilted the balance after an opening period that Watford ended in marginal control. “I earn money for these decisions,” Ranieri said afterwards but his impression, the previous day, of the imaginary bell he rings in training showed a skill for avoiding tension by different means and it is a tactic that works on his players.

“He just likes to have a little laugh and joke,” Vardy said. “I was watching Jeff Stelling doing it on Soccer Saturday earlier. All of a sudden he pops up saying: ‘Dilly ding, dilly dong.’ It made all the lads chuckle and it makes everyone relax, to be honest.

“It spreads around the group, but [RANIERI]has a good set of lads on him. He hasn’t had to tweak too much. He knows we are fighters and will do it for each other week-in, week-out, and that’s just what he wants us to keep doing.”

There was care in Vardy’s words but the past week has made it difficult to play down Leicester’s prospects, with Newcastle appearing an ideal accessory to maintaining – at worst – their five-point lead at the top in a week’s time. Ranieri accepted that his team now have a “big chance” but suggested there is more to be done.

“Every match is one thing and that’s it, step by step,” he said. “For us, this season is to discover and improve, that’s our philosophy. It is not about being nervous. We have to fight, build and get the winner’s mentality.”

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