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Ranieri finds the time to smile away from Leicester dogfight

By Miguel Delaney

Claudio Ranieri looked up and smiled, having clearly just realised he had the perfect answer. Sitting in the press room of the Sanchez Pizjuan ahead of Leicester City's Champions League last-16 first leg with Sevilla, the Italian had predictably been asked - given the traditions of the city - whether his Foxes players were matadors or bulls.

Ranieri deliberately misinterpreted the question by wondering if he was being asked whether his side "have the b***s".

It brought a laugh, and a slight change in mood. There have been many times in the dismal first two months of 2017 when it has felt like Ranieri has tried to use humour in press conferences to give the impression that all is as it was last season despite the results, only for it to come across as misplaced and forced, but this was not one of those occasions.

It felt different, more natural, as if liberated by what he himself described as the 'lightness' of the different circumstances.

The truth was he sounded different, too, and not just in tone. Ranieri speaking Spanish, a language he has complete command of, makes him come across a very different figure than Ranieri speaking English.

It might be a superficial thing, but it makes him sound so much more assured and there was an impressive assertiveness to him on the eve of what should be a daunting match.

"Tomorrow could be the turning point, could be everything tomorrow," the Italian said.

"If we have a very good game, something inside could change. We need one match like this. We play without the pressure of the Premier League, we play light. For this reason I hope we can show our football."

It showed how widespread the expectation is that an on-form Sevilla will beat Leicester - maybe even destroy them - that Jorge Sampaoli was barely asked about the game in his own pre-match press conference. He was mostly asked about the possibility of taking over at Barcelona in the summer, something that further reflected how well his side are playing.

For all the presumption of the questions and the intangibles of the psychology surrounding the game, however, these are also the tangible realities: Sevilla are simply a "better team", as Ranieri himself admitted.

They are on far better form, as they challenge Real Madrid for the Spanish title. They have far better players. They have a much more sought-after manager, capable of far more sophisticated tactics.

If all goes as it should, Sevilla should really win easily and win well, maybe putting the tie beyond doubt in the first leg.

The wonder is what Ranieri and Leicester can really do to stop them right now. The tactical dynamic of the tie, after all, is something else that their dismal form has distorted.

When it was first drawn, the anticipation was that this would be a classically novel tie of Sampaoli's extreme pressing against Ranieri's classic counter-attacking. To properly counter-attack, you need to be able to defend and finish efficiently, and they are abilities that have deserted Leicester in the last two months.

"Last year, every shot was a goal, and now no," Ranieri lamented. "Before, we had one of the best defences in the Premier League, and now, no."

Belfast Telegraph


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