LONDON (Reuters) - Considering all the drama that he has navigated so expertly this season, Leicester City’s manager Craig Shakespeare can be expected to oversee the biggest game in the club’s history at Atletico Madrid on Wednesday night with real aplomb.
The unheralded 53-year-old emerged from the shadow of his miracle-working predecessor Claudio Ranieri at the end of February to win his first six games in charge.
It was a remarkable achievement that was only ended when, with the Champions League quarter-final first leg in mind, Shakespeare played a weakened team and suffered a 4-2 reverse at Everton on Sunday.
Seldom has a team’s turnaround been executed with such ruthless efficiency.
Almost with a snap of his fingers, Shakespeare transformed the imposters who were bumbling around under Ranieri back into the team that gave the game one of its great stories last season when they won the Premier League.
Although Shakespeare, who has been awarded a contract until the end of the season, has never criticised Ranieri, British media reported that the players were instrumental in the departure of the charismatic Italian, whose tinkering no longer seemed to inspire but only to confuse.
Anyone seeking an explanation for how Shakespeare has set about his task should remember the words of the late Bob Paisley, who also stepped up from unheralded number two to become Liverpool’s most successful manager.
“Ranting and raving gets you nowhere in football,” Paisley once said. “If you want to be heard, speak quietly.”
Shakespeare has done just that -- and how his team have responded.
Leicester’s new manager is more eloquent than Paisley, a notoriously poor speaker who struggled to finish his sentences, but he shares a technique rooted in the same sort of quiet authority and expert knowledge of players.
In his two spells at the club, as assistant first to Nigel Pearson in the former manager’s two spells in charge and then under Ranieri, Shakespeare has been at the club for eight of the past nine years.
That means almost every player who has arrived did so with his blessing and sometimes on his recommendation. He knows what makes them tick and how best to deploy them.
Players who had become confused as to why the methods that last season delivered the title had been ditched have, unsurprisingly perhaps, embraced his appointment.
Last season’s talisman Jamie Vardy and African Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez are back firing while Yohan Benalouane, seldom used by Ranieri, has slotted in so well that the absence of injured captain Wes Morgan may not be so keenly felt in Madrid.
Statistics bear out Leicester’s transformation under Shakespeare. In the recent 2-0 win over Stoke City, the Foxes had 10 shots on target, their most in a Premier League game since 2003-04.
They are unlikely, however, to be so positive in the cauldron of the Calderon when counter-attack will be expected to bring dividends.
Having already seen off Sevilla, no-one will be overawed, least of all a manager with another transformative experience to draw on this season to stiffen his resolve.
For in all the furore about his role in Ranieri’s sacking, it is easy to forget that Shakespeare also witnessed close up another great managerial soap opera this season -- Sam Allardyce’s 67-day reign as England manager.
Allardyce, a shrewd judge of football talent, had been quick to appoint Shakespeare part-time coach before triggering his own downfall in a newspaper sting.
Wiser and warier of what can lurk around football’s corners, Shakespeare retreated to Leicester where he, and his close-knit team, have proved the season’s great survivors.
Reporting by Neil Robinson; Editing by Ian Chadband