Wenger and Ranieri's last chance for glory, says Neil Humphreys
Haunted by failings, Wenger and Ranieri are fighting for final shot at title
ARSENAL v LEICESTER
(Sunday, 8.45pm, Singtel TV Ch 102 & StarHub TV Ch 227)
Claudio Ranieri plays the fool. He grins for the cameras and makes the most of his second language shortcomings.
The Leicester manager is the cute and cuddly uncle dancing in his white leather slippers. Everybody loves him.
Arsene Wenger, on the other hand, plays for no one.
Glaring through the lens, he looks every one of his 66 years. The Arsenal manager is neither cute nor cuddly, but increasingly perplexed. He carries the weight of the world on his shoulders.
In appearance, the two men are chalk and cheese.
In reality, they are kindred spirits. When they meet on the touchline tomorrow, they face a mirror - two old men haunted by their title failings.
They know that this is their last chance. There will not be another.
Of course, this fixture is not a title decider. If Leicester succumb, the gap is narrowed to just two points. Should Arsenal falter, they would trail the Foxes by eight points. But 12 games still remain afterwards.
Nevertheless, defeat would feel like a mortal blow. The long, slow death of one's professional pride begins with games like this.
Both managers know this. Ranieri, the jovial journeyman, messes around for the media, but the winks and giggles often resemble the "tears of a clown" routine.
No paid sportsman can fall short of victory so many times without it hurting. Ranieri has often lamented the Tinkerman stereotypes and his struggle to be taken seriously as a coach, but the only remedy to this has always eluded him.
Six different title expeditions at six different clubs all ended in failure.
Some were expected. Others felt like unnecessary implosions. But Fiorentina, Valencia, Chelsea, Juventus, Roma and Monaco all glimpsed or visited the summit under the 64-year-old, but never stayed there.
Those illustrious names have accumulated 85 league trophies between them. Ranieri got his hands on none.
He's not so much the Tinkerman as he is the Nearly Man. The Italian has shed his reputation for being a fussy meddler. Only a title will remove the "nearly, but not quite" asterisk that leaves an unsightly mark on his 30-year career.
But he is learning. He has said and done less at Leicester. He has taken a Darwinist approach to management- adapting, evolving and excelling. On this score, Ranieri is succeeding where Wenger appears to still be failing.
Both men were once prisoners to their unshakable principles and practices, but the crafty Fox has relented. Wenger remains as stubborn as a mule.
With the Frenchman devoted to the Wenger Way, the exasperated Arsenal crowd finds itself stuck in another Gunners Groundhog Day.
A refusal to break the bank to buy a decisive defensive midfielder, an insistence on nifty mavericks rather than no-nonsense muscle men and an unwillingness to sign a genuinely intimidating leader yet again evokes a sense of deja vu.
Whereas Wenger's puritanical streak once fitted Arsenal's philosophy like a glove, it now constricts like a straitjacket.
Twelve years have passed since his last title, the end of a period of success that now belongs in another era. It was a time when Wenger's approach was sprinkled with pragmatism (he's never again signed aggressive, game-breaking leaders like Patrick Vieira, Emmanuel Petit or even Ray Parlour).
And what Wenger has lost, Ranieri appears to have gained during the most glorious of Indian summers.
Leicester play to a fixed, clearly defined system, utilising individual and collective strengths. It really is as simple as that. There's no magic bullet, no rabbit under the hand, just a concerted willingness to play for each other.
The Gunners do the same, sometimes, occasionally, before the mental strength wavers and the mavericks all drift away and Wenger's Arsenal do what Wenger's Arsenal always do.
So this campaign represents a breaking point. It's both the best and worst of times for Wenger. He'll never get a better chance to win the title. For that reason, he may not be granted another chance to win the title should he fail again.
And Ranieri knows he won't. It's now or never for the old guard. The ageing managers are running out of time.
When they shake hands at the Emirates, they'll recognise the desperate need for victory in the other man's eyes.
But, most of all, they'll hear a ticking clock.
- Sunderland v Man United (8.45pm)
- Bournemouth v Stoke (11pm)
- Crystal Palace v Watford (11pm)
- Everton v West Brom (11pm)
- Norwich v West Ham (11pm)
- Swansea v Southampton (11pm)
- Chelsea v Newcastle (1.30am)
- Aston Villa v Liverpool (10.05pm)
- Man City v Tottenham (12.15am)
BY THE NUMBERS
The Premier League win percentage of Arsene Wenger during his stint at Arsenal. Since he took over in 1996, the Frenchman has won 428 of 739 league games. In contrast, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has 91 wins from 171 matches (53 per cent).
The Ranieri Effect: Ex-Players' Insights
Three former Chelsea players - defender Mario Melchiot (1999-2004, right), midfielder Geremi (2003-2007) and goalkeeper Ed de Goey (1997-2003) - who worked under Claudio Ranieri during his previous Premier League stint at Chelsea from 2000 to 2004, offered a peep into the Italian coach's methods.
- What was it like to work with Ranieri?
Melchiot (above): A player's fitness is important to Ranieri because he wants to make sure you can handle the game at your best and that you can focus until the end. He hates players who get tired and make silly mistakes.
Geremi (above): He was very demanding in training. It's important to work hard. When you train hard, you are less exposed to injuries.
De Goey (above): He is a typical Italian coach who likes a lot of physical work, work on team shape and long training sessions. A lot of things are down to power and you can see that in the way Leicester are playing. They run a lot, they work hard and that's what gets them results.
- What are Ranieri's best qualities?
Melchiot: He knows how to press opposition teams like no one else. You'll know how to defend as a team better than you knew before.
Geremi: He likes discipline. The players at Chelsea didn't like the way he rotated the team, but the squad were big with a lot of good players. He had to manage the situation at Chelsea, keep most of the players happy and keep getting results.
De Goey: He can adapt very well to opponents. He knows all their strengths and weaknesses, that's one of his strong points.
- Are you surprised how well Ranieri has done?
De Goey: Yes, I think everybody is, but I think the key point is everyone is working his socks off for each other for the whole match. They go quickly from defence to attack with players like Riyad Mahrez and Jamie Vardy up front.
- Why do you think Ranieri is doing so well at Leicester?
Melchiot: Deep down, he wants to win the league badly and I'm sure the players know that, too. But he won't let the media know it and that keeps the pressure off the players. In his last season at Chelsea, we came second in the league. We were so close and I'm sure he doesn't want that to happen again.
Geremi: At the start, everyone said Leicester would get tired, they would start to lose, but they have an experienced manager who won't panic in this situation.
I know he will be thinking of winning the league. They just have to believe they can win it.
De Goey: Hard work is always the key to success. Nobody expected this from Leicester. Now we have to wait and see how far they can go. It could depend on injuries and suspensions because if anything happens to Mahrez and Vardy, they will miss their quality.