August 21, 2014

There will be a guard of honour at Stamford Bridge to conclude the Premier League season for the second straight year.

And the Italian who Roman Abramovich once tried to make a British football king will finally wear his long-sought crown in London on Sunday when Claudio Ranieri and champions Leicester City conclude this once-in-a-lifetime campaign against deposed title-holders Chelsea.

"This time it's different because I am the manager of Leicester, another English club, and it's emotional," said Ranieri, whose only other time in the visitor's dugout at Stamford Bridge came in a Champions League round of 16 match with Juventus. "When I thought something special, I thought with the song of Nessun Dorma. When I came here I say, 'Oh, the last match is at Chelsea. Wow.' And now I come back as a champion. Unbelievable. It's a good story.

"I hope my old fans are happy with me."

One of the storylines that has marked Leicester City's incredible rise from worst to first in the span of less than a full season has been the vindication of Ranieri, whose "Tinkerman" moniker originated out of derision while at Chelsea due to his incessant rotating of players. This most notably brought him under fire during the 2003-04 season when Ranieri admitted his tactical moves cost Chelsea a spot in the Champions League final as they eventually finished second to Arsenal's "Invincibles" domestically.

He became the first manager fired by Abramovich - who inherited Ranieri when he bought Chelsea in 2003 - and the Italian's reputation as a title bridesmaid only grew larger upon his return to Italy. He failed to get both Juventus and AS Roma past Inter Milan, run by two-time ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho, from 2007-10. At one point, the "Special One" mocked Ranieri by calling him "Zero Tituli," which meant "No Titles."

By almost any other standard, his two-season stint with Monaco was a success. Ranieri got Monaco promoted his first season by winning Ligue 2 and then finished second to Paris-St. Germain in 2013-14 his second, but the French side opted not to renew his deal.

Then came the disastrous four-match stint with Greece for European Championship qualifying, which led many to feel underwhelmed with Leicester City (23-11-3) hiring Ranieri just 26 days before opening the season against Sunderland.

How wrong those pundits - most notably Leicester City alum Gary Lineker among them - were.

"I've lost the finals in England, Spain and Italy but for me to this, this is something special," Ranieri told Leicester City's official website. "I think it was an amazing moment for me because I'm not the youngest and there is another test now. You are the champion of the Premier League and it's something special for everybody.

"In my career I always thought sooner or later I'd win a title. This is a crazy season and we had fantastic consistency all season."

And while Ranieri is both too cagey and too genial to publicly admit it, Leicester's 2-1 victory in the reverse fixture Dec. 14 that proved to be the final match of Mourinho's second stint with Chelsea must have provided a deep sense of satisfaction.

Here were upstart and fearless Leicester, with players enjoying a two-way street of trust with their manager as stars Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez gave no quarter to the reigning champions. After the match, a white-hot Mourinho publicly seethed over his players' inability to stick to his scouting report and questioned their professionalism.

It was the first time during this magical season the Foxes showed they would not fade and perhaps the Blues realised that repeating as champions would be too much an ask.

Eventually, the other ever-present Premier League powers joined Chelsea by the wayside. Early it was Liverpool, who were transitioning from Brendan Rodgers to Jurgen Klopp, then Manchester United as they seemingly lurched rudderless from match to match under Louis van Gaal.

United's noisy neighbours Manchester City and their indifferent play on the road followed suit, though it was Leicester's 3-1 victory at the Etihad Stadium that crushed the hopes of the blue side of that city. Next were Arsenal, who did the double over Leicester but failed to build on those victories with maddening inconsistency against the league's lightweights.

Tottenham Hotspur were the final ones to break, spectacularly coming undone in a foul-tempered derby May 2 at Stamford Bridge in which Chelsea rallied to a 2-2 draw to give Ranieri his long-awaited title and make champions of the 5,000-to-1 longshots known as Leicester City.

"Zero Tituli" finally became "Un Titolo."

"Now we are champions, we have to play like champions," Ranieri said. "On Sunday, I don't want the result, I want to see my players show the same attitude and I am happy. Always I've said it's not important the result, but it's important the performance, how you play."

Already in the history books in so many respects by winning the title, Leicester City can become the seventh Premier League champions to finish at least 10 points ahead of the runners-up. By the final whistle Sunday, the Foxes could top the table by as many as 13 points - only Manchester United's 1999-2000 squad created a larger chasm at 18 points.

That point earned against Spurs showed Chelsea (12-13-12) did tend to their wounded pride under Guus Hiddink, though the Dutchman's second stint in this capacity will not end anywhere near as well as his first in 2009 when he lifted the FA Cup trophy and reached the semifinals of the Champions League.

He confirmed the Blues will perform the customary duty of creating a guard of honour prior to kickoff, offering Ranieri and his team the proper respect befitting the Premier League champions.

"They were surprisingly in first position and in the last two months, when everyone was writing about them winning the title, they reacted without fear," he told Chelsea's official website. "They enjoyed the moment, it was well managed, they didn't implode with the huge expectation when everybody said they would be champions and it was a good performance."

While Hiddink may remain with Chelsea in some capacity, it will not be as manager since Abramovich has already made the 11th change of his reign - Italy national manager Antonio Conte will take over after the European Championship next month.

There already has been one twist to Chelsea's offseason before Conte's impending arrival after the club revealed Friday they offered captain John Terry a one-year contract extension. The talisman won't be getting a proper sendoff from the only club he's ever known since he is serving a suspension for his second red card of the season earned May 7 at Sunderland, but the club's reversal surprised many after Terry went public in January that the team had not made him a contract offer.

Terry, who has made 703 appearances for the club since his debut in October 1998, took to his Instagram account to reveal the "contract extension the club has offered me is a different role and I hope everyone will understand I want to take the time to consider it carefully before making a decision."

The 35-year-old central defender had reportedly received offers from teams in the Chinese Super League.

Chelsea also will be without injured striker Diego Costa, though Eden Hazard is in superlative form after a beautiful individual effort Wednesday accounted for the Blues' scoring in their 1-1 draw at Anfield.

But Hazard and Chelsea are afterthoughts for this match, and rightfully so. Because after the final whistle blows at Stamford Bridge, no one will be able to call Ranieri - and Leicester City - "Zero Tituli" ever again.

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