Claudio Ranieri Faces Fresh Challenge as Italian Tries to Hold Leicester City's Champions Together

28/07/2016 16:36 | Updated 28 July 2016
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Claudio Ranieri has never been shy of sugarcoating, swerving the truth or saying it like it is. There has always been something refreshingly forthright about the Italian - perhaps that's why he is so likeable. At times, Ranieri is a delight to behold; full of animation, vigour and remonstration.

However, in contrast, he can also wear the look of a defeated man. Be it at Greece or another one of his less joy-filled stops along his managerial odyssey, Ranieri has cut a worried or vexed figure, and that's how he came across when he addressed the media following Leicester City's penalty shootout victory over Celtic in the pre-season International Champions Cup tournament.

Ranieri's men had played some decent football at Celtic Park, but he's been in football (specifically English football) long enough now that he knew the press conference would be geared more towards the Foxes' rumblings in the transfer market. Inevitably, perhaps not helped by the fact that he produced an equaliser of stunning quality during the match, the topic of Riyad Mahrez came up.

"It is good because you can continue to write, write, write," he told the press after the match at Celtic Park in reference to growing speculation that the magical Algerian playmaker was set for a big-money move to Arsenal.

"It is good for you but not for us. Did you see Riyad, how he is happy? He played well and worked so hard for the team and scored a good goal. Then he stays with us. Of course," Ranieri added with the slightest zephyr of desperation.

We all saw Mahrez, Claudio. He performed much like we have come to expect from the 25-year-old; full of trickery and invention while conjuring up a goal of divine quality. Perhaps Ranieri's words were not directed so much at the press dedicating column inches to the supposed departure of one of Leicester's stars. No, perhaps it was a manifestation of Ranieri's own despondency - at the growing realisation that his squad of history makers is being torn apart at the seams.

With five weeks of the transfer window remaining, the possibility of Mahrez packing his bags, waving goodbye to the King Power Stadium and heading up the M1 to North London is very much a possibility. If it happens, Ranieri will lose another crucial piece in the puzzle that brought him his finest footballing moment - indeed, Leicester's finest footballing moment.

It has been a rough summer for the Foxes. After the unbridled ecstasy of hoisting the Premier League trophy aloft, the club has lost its outstanding midfielder in N'Golo Kante, who felt the lure of Stamford Bridge was too irresistible. They have also parted ways with Steve Walsh, the recruitment guru who helped shape a title-winning team by unearthing Jamie Vardy, Mahrez and Kante.

Yes, Ranieri admitted that the club was hurting. "Now we are crying because we lost Kante," he said. "Don't worry. Football in Leicester will keep going," he added.

The football will certainly keep going, not only with a Premier League title defence, but also with the exhilaration and enchantment of the Champions League. The question is though; how does Ranieri maintain the same quality of football and the brilliant results when he is faced with the disintegration of his champions?

The answer is simple: smart investment and thorough preparation. Although Leicester have signed Ahmed Musa for a club-record £16m and captured Nampalys Mendy from Nice for £13m - two seemingly ready-made replacements for Kante and Mahrez - the Foxes will need to further bolster their squad if they are to harness both the rigours of the Premier League and Champions League adequately to meet the supporters' heightened expectations.

Tying captain Wes Morgan and star striker Jamie Vardy down to new contracts will serve as a massive relief for Ranieri, but there is still a huge task ahead. The possibility of losing the PFA Player of the Year looms ominously and his departure would be sorely felt by the club. Whether or not that happens, the landscape at Leicester has changed dramatically. They are no longer fighting to stay in the Premier League - they are fighting to stay at the top.

The Premier League was the first top-flight title Ranieri has lifted, so the forthcoming season is as alien to him as it is to the Leicester supporters. The first assignment will be to persevere through a trying pre-season of speculation and counter-speculation to portray a togetherness and keep producing the fairytale football that shaped the most compelling narrative last season.

However, it's far from easy to maintain such an elevated position. Just ask Blackburn Rovers.

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