Football Features

Claudio Ranieri’s all-time Premier League XI: dilly ding, dilly didn’t make the team

By Ben Green

Published: 13:29, 9 October 2021

In September 2000, Claudio Ranieri was drafted in by Ken Bates to save Chelsea’s season; 21 years later trigger-happy Gino Pozzo has drafted in the Italian to save Watford’s season.

Two decades ago, before sheikhs and oligarchs ruled the Premier League landscape, Ranieri was a relative unknown on these shores, generating a reputation as a bit of a tactical firebrand in Italy and Spain; leading Napoli to fourth in their first season post-Diego Maradona and winning the 1999 Copa del Rey with Valencia.

Two decades on, Ranieri is more than known, he is revered. The respected Roman ushered in the Roman Abramovich era at Stamford Bridge, guided Chelsea to the Champions League semi-finals in 2004 and, of course… you know.

A fairytale Premier League win with Leicester is the apotheosis of a storied career in the dugout, but he now faces one of his biggest challenges: avoiding the Pozzo chopping block. To wish the man luck, we’ve put together his ultimate Premier League XI, littered with Chelsea and Leicester stars (sorry Fulham, you didn’t make the cut).

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Goalkeeper: Kasper Schmeichel

It would be impossible not to include Kasper Schmeichel, who was an ever-present in Leicester’s title-winning campaign. Indeed, nothing quite comes close to that script-defying trophy lift in 2016 (as far as the Premier League is concerned anyway), and Schmeichel was the epitome of calm amid that drama-fuelled race to the finish line. The dextrous Dane made save after save as Ranieri rallied on the touchline, the Foxes feasted in the final third and the King Power crowd pinched each other. There were indeed a lot of sore arms on the 2nd of May, 2016 — and Schmeichel was largely responsible for that!

Right-back: Mario Melchiot

Melchiot’s maiden campaign came in Louis van Gaal’s legendary Ajax team in the 90s, which included the likes of Jari Litmanen, Patrick Kluivert, Marc Overmars and the De Boers. Not a bad education at all. He moved to Stamford Bridge in 1999 but endured an injury-hit debut season at the Bridge under Gianluca Vialli.

The following season Ranieri would be at the helm, and during the Italian’s four years in west London, Melchiot was his go-to No. 2. The Amsterdammer was a Premier League mainstay during the noughties and a stalwart under Ranieri. The Italian’s very own ‘Super Mario’ (sorry Stanic).

Centre-back: Wes Morgan

I can give you 5,000 reasons why Marcel Desailly should be included ahead of Wes Morgan here, but I need just one reason to explain the latter’s inclusion: he was Ranieri’s title-winning captain. With the odds stacked against Leicester in 2015/16 (5000/1 by bookmakers), Morgan helped produce a miracle.

Desailly is an all-time great but his legacy was not built at Chelsea, nor under Ranieri.

Morgan, meanwhile, didn’t come to the Premier League with World Cup medals and Hall of Fame recognition, but what he lacked in silverware he made up for in grit, determination and a muck-and-nettles approach that would define Ranieri’s King Power tenure and make history in the English top flight.

Centre-back: John Terry

An absolute toss up between Terry and William Gallas, but we’ve given it to the former as he was Chelsea’s Player of the Year in Ranieri’s first season as Chelsea boss, and in the PFA Team of the Year in Ranieri’s last season as Chelsea boss. Yes, believe it or not, Terry was in fact a world-class centre-back before Jose Mourinho sculpted him into a none-shall-pass bulwark, which culminated in him scooping the PFA Players’ Player of the Year in 2005.

Left-back: Christian Fuchs

Ranieri managed Graeme Le Saux in his second Chelsea spell, but the Jersey-born full-back saw his time under the Italian buffeted by injuries and Wayne Bridge was his main No. 3 in 2003/04. But Fuchs comes in as another miracle-worker.

When the Austrian signed on a free at the start of 2015 he was probably expecting a slog to mid-table in the hustle and bustle of English football. Instead, he was a key cog in the well-oiled machine that was Leicester’s Premier League triumph. He didn’t make his first start until matchday eight, by which point Leicester had not kept a single clean sheet. By matchday 38, they had kept 15, the joint-most in that 30-game span.

Central midfield: N’Golo Kante

You could not put together a Ranieri midfield and not include Kante. The Italian has worked with Claude Makelele and Dennis Wise at Chelsea, but neither affected his career as much as Kante has, the silent workhorse, limelight-avoiding genius, a lung-busting Carrilero who was the heartbeat of that Leicester side.

Kante finished the 2015/16 season having made more tackles (175), interceptions (156) and pass blocks (81) than any other player in the Premier League. Simply put: he was impenetrable. He even turned Danny Drinkwater into a £35m player. Some players transcend superlatives. Kante is one such player.

Central midfield: Frank Lampard

Another, like Terry, whose Chelsea career was largely defined post-Ranieri, but that does not mean he was not exquisite under him. Lampard was named in the PFA Team of the Year in Ranieri’s final season at Chelsea and got his first taste of a double-digit goalscoring campaign in the Premier League under his tutelage.

The seeds of a long-standing Chelsea career were sown by Ranieri, with Lampard enjoying three productive years as his trusted box-to-box. The mere thought of Lampard and Kante working in tandem as part of Ranieri’s midfield is the stuff of fantasy, really.

Right midfield: Riyad Mahrez

The architect in Leicester’s title win. The double-jointed winger dazzled with his twinkle-toed runs, jinks and pirouettes. That trademark cut in on the right and unleash with the left was so predictable in the end, and yet, it was impossible to prevent as full-backs scratched their heads and licked their wounds.

The Algerian was simply Ranieri’s attacking fulcrum in 2015/16, providing a splash of wonder as he registered 11 assists and scored a whopping 17 goals, an incredible feat for a winger as the likes of Harry Kane (25), Jamie Vardy (24), Sergio Aguero (24) and Romelu Lukaku (18) led the Golden Boot race.

Left midfield: Gianfranco Zola

Ranieri first bestowed a young Zola Maradona’s legendary No. 10 shirt at Napoli, so you know, no pressure, to which the Argentine immortal commented: “Napoli doesn’t need to look for anyone to replace me, the team already has Zola!” After lighting up Serie A, Zola eventually found himself in England with Chelsea.

And he would eventually be reunited with Ranieri at the Bridge. Having already won two FA Cups and the League Cup by the time Ranieri rocked up, Zola continued to flourish, winning the club’s Player of the Year in 2003 (his second after 1999) and enjoying his most productive campaign in 2002/03, netting 16 goals across all competitions. He left in 2003 as one of the best foreign players in Premier League history.

Striker: Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink

Before the Didier Drogbas, Diego Costas and Romelu Lukakus, there was Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink, who was an absolute goal fiend under Ranieri. The duo were at Chelsea for the exact same length of time and in that span, Hasselbaink bagged 87 goals in 177 games, won the Premier League Golden Boot in 2000/01 (23 goals) and top scored for the club in three of the Italian’s four seasons in west London (Z0la top scored in the other).

Striker: Jamie Vardy

Completing this strike force is, of course, Jamie Vardy, whose breakneck speed, final-third precision and goalscoring output carried Leicester to the unthinkable five years ago. As a result he was one of four Leicester players named in the PFA Team of the Year; he was also named FWA Footballer of the Year; and he won the Premier League Player of the Season award. Under Ranieri, Vardy also broke Ruud van Nistelrooy’s record of scoring in the most consecutive Premier League games. In short, he was a goal magnet, and continues to be so.