April 27, 2015

They were at complete opposite points in the soccer world last year.

In London was Jose Mourinho leading Chelsea to a Premier League title in a wire-to-wire campaign with a ruthless pragmatism, while Claudio Ranieri sat unemployed following an ill-fated stint in Greece in which using the term disastrous would be a kind understatement.

With a reversal of fortunes comes a softening of views for the two managers who share the bond of coaching at Stamford Bridge, as Mourinho's Blues meet up with Ranieri's upstart, front-running Leicester City on Monday at King Power Stadium.

Mourinho's third title defence during his second stint in London has been plagued by, well, everything.

Be it a leaky defence that was once his foundation, the absence of the aura of invincibility at Stamford Bridge, aging players slipping from championship form, "The Special One" railing against the media or a perceived slight from match officials or an offence struggling to ignite, the cold mid-December reality is Chelsea (4-3-8) are languishing in 14th place on 15 points, just two above the drop.

Seemingly every week the Portuguese manager faces a must-win contest to improve his job security - at least according to the tabloids - though it can be argued Wednesday's 2-0 victory over Porto was just that since it provided Chelsea passage into the Champions League round of 16 as a group winner.

Chelsea will avoid the last three titleholders - Barcelona, his former team Real Madrid and Bayern Munich - in Monday's knockout-round draw. Mourinho, though, was keen to play up the underdog role that served him well in winning Europe's top club tournament with Porto and Inter Milan.

"A team that is struggling so much like we are is not obviously a candidate to win the Champions League," Mourinho said.

"But when we won with Porto in 2004 we were not candidate," Mourinho added, referring to himself as "we." "When we won with Inter in 2010 we were not candidates. When we were candidates we lost two semifinals with Real Madrid and we lost two semifinals with Chelsea. So let's see. We never know."

Chelsea's defence, which has shipped 24 goals in 17 matches after yielding 32 all of last season, looks to have found its bearings by conceding just once in its last five matches across all competitions. But in keeping with their snake-bit league campaign, that resulted in a stunning home loss to Bournemouth last weekend.

It would be easy to let Ranieri revel in the schadenfreude of Mourinho's misery. After all, it was Mourinho who succeeded "The Tinkerman" in London in 2004 and belittled the Italian for his barren run at Chelsea, saying in 2008, "At almost 70 years of age, has won a Super Cup and another small cup. He is too old to change his mentality."

Never mind the fact Ranieri was 56 at the time, and that two years later Mourinho called him "a loser." And even 13 months ago, that tag seemed appropriate. Ranieri was sacked four matches into Greece's European qualifying campaign, the low point an embarrassing 1-0 home loss to the Faroe Islands which left the 2004 Euro champions with three home defeats and one point during his watch.

Even Ranieri's appointment to Leicester City in July had a feel of desperation, replacing Nigel Pearson after he had a falling out with the club's board.

While time may heal all wounds, winning surely helps them heal quicker.

"I think Chelsea for me means a lot because it was my first team here," Ranieri said. "I worked there for four years and I think well. For me I'm very proud I was their manager but now it's an old story.

"This (Chelsea's league position) doesn't mean anything because Chelsea is Chelsea, Mourinho is Mourinho. When they start to win, they can arrive (higher in the league)."

Atop the table by two points, Ranieri and the Foxes (9-5-1) remain the talk of England, though a daunting stretch to close out the year will test that with the Blues' visit leading them into trips to Everton and Liverpool followed by a home match with Manchester City. Sure, Jamie Vardy's Premier League record-setting run of scoring a goal in 11 consecutive matches ended in last weekend's 3-0 romp at Swansea City, but Riyad Mahrez picked up his mate by firing home a hat trick as Leicester ran their unbeaten stretch to eight (6-2-0).

Vardy has a league-high 14 goals, while Mahrez moved into third with 10. It was also the Foxes' third clean sheet in their last six matches after failing to record one in the first nine.

Two weeks ago, a defiant Mourinho brushed away Leicester's title hopes. Now, a more respectful Mourinho is quick to praise his one-time predecessor.

"If Leicester are where they are, it's because the manager and players are doing magnificent," he said. "Ranieri? He has just won manager of the month, although I think he should have won more than that (once).

"One year ago, they were bottom of the league, Ranieri was sacked from Greece after losing to the Faroe Islands, now he's the top manager in the Premier League, and the players are in the top of the league - this is fantastic."

Mourinho also was gracious in accepting Ranieri's expectations Chelsea would be a top-four side by season's end, adding, "I think Ranieri is showing he has that nice feeling for the club, but I also believe in what he says."

Chelsea did the double last season, including a 3-1 win in the corresponding fixture that clinched the title. Leicester have dropped six in a row to Chelsea since a 2-1 home victory in 2001.

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