Claudio Ranieri will prove his elite manager status if he keeps Fulham up
Claudio Ranieri possesses the ideal CV to manage Fulham, the Premier League's bottom club.
The Italian can boast charisma, experience of managing at the highest level for over 30 years, the ability to work with demanding owners, a knack of winning over even the most sceptical supporters and, perhaps most importantly, he also has a big tick in the box marked "sporting miracles."
At 67, there is little that Ranieri has not encountered, but his title success with Leicester City in 2015-16 -- when the 5000-1 outsiders won the league for the first time in the club's history -- ensures that he will always be remembered for achieving the impossible. He has managed Chelsea, Inter, Juventus, Atletico Madrid, but that unforgettable season of glory at the King Power Stadium will ultimately define his career.
However, as he prepares to take charge of a Premier League game this weekend for the first time since being sacked by Leicester in February 2017, Ranieri has the opportunity to prove he is more than just a miracle worker: Can he produce a different kind of alchemy at Craven Cottage and mastermind a great escape?
He is putting his reputation on the line and the prospect of being relegated risks tarnishing the memory of success at Leicester, but the flip side is that he could also walk away having proved himself to be a truly great manager, one who can inspire players at both ends of the table to previously unexpected heights.
Fulham, who were promoted via the playoffs last season, are in desperate need of something to avoid going straight back down: Ranieri's predecessor Slavisa Jokanovic was sacked by owner Shahid Khan after overseeing just one win -- combined with nine defeats -- in the opening 12 league games of the season.
A home game against fourth-bottom Southampton, managed by ex-Fulham boss Mark Hughes, offers the chance for Ranieri to hit the ground running; victory would inject instant optimism throughout his squad. It also might be needed, given the games that follow are against two of his old clubs, Chelsea and Leicester, and Manchester United.
Despite the image he projected at Leicester -- the affable, joking "dilly-ding, dilly-dong" old-stager -- he is a hard-headed product of his upbringing, rather than a footballing dreamer. Basic principles, Ranieri insisted at his introductory press conference, will be central to his attempts to keep Fulham up, rather than old memories.
"Leicester was a fairy tale, but we need to forget," Ranieri said. "If I have one quality, it is to forget what happened yesterday. I look always forward. I think now is important to not think about miracles, but think about a lot of battles and be ready together."
Ranieri immediately identified the areas in which improvement must be made.
"Fulham have conceded a lot of goals (31 in 12 games) and I am an Italian manager, so for us, it's important to maintain the clean sheet. I need fighting spirit because, with quality and fighting spirit we can do good job."
While Ranieri might not wish to dwell upon the past, and it is true that pursuing a title is markedly different from fighting relegation, there are striking similarities between the squad he inherited at Leicester and the players at his disposal now. It is why his new challenge is so intriguing.
Can he take rising stars such as Ryan Sessegnon and goalkeeper Marcus Bettinelli to a higher level? Can he re-ignite Aleksandar Mitrovic's goal touch? Is there a defender who can be his Wes Morgan? Can Kevin McDonald and Tom Cairney become as consistent as were Danny Drinkwater and Marc Albrighton?
At Leicester, Ranieri imposed his methods and found a way to dredge the best from all of his players. He placed trust in the likes of Riyad Mahrez and N'Golo Kante -- both of whom had been overlooked by bigger clubs -- and was rewarded spectacularly by both. Jamie Vardy, meanwhile, scored consistently at the top level, having been playing nonleague just four years earlier.
Every top manager has had his record questioned by those who ask how well he would do in charge of a team at the bottom of the table. Hardly any face the challenge of finding out, although Rafael Benitez has shown at Newcastle that an elite manager, who has coached at the very highest level, can achieve relative success lower down.
But Ranieri's title with Leicester means he must shoulder a heavier burden with Fulham than merely having a winning track record. If he can make the impossible happen again, not only will it reaffirm his previous achievements, but it will serve as further proof of his elite status.