Jamie Vardy scored twice as a revitalised Leicester City started life without sacked manager Claudio Ranieri by sinking Liverpool 3-1 on Monday to spark their Premier League survival hopes.
Ranieri, 65, was dismissed last Thursday, nine months on from Leicester’s fairytale title win, and fans honoured him with banners, masks and a smartphone light show in the 65th minute.
His former charges were unrecognisable from recent weeks, with Danny Drinkwater also on target as they snapped a run of five straight defeats to climb out of the relegation zone to 15th place.
“All I asked of the team was to remember what they were about and remember their identity,” said Leicester caretaker manager Craig Shakespeare.
Both Vardy and Drinkwater said Leicester’s display had been a reaction to press reports implicating the players in Ranieri’s exit.
Vardy’s first-half opener was Leicester’s first league goal in seven games and made them the last team from Europe’s five major championships to find the net in 2017.
While the display will give Leicester’s fans hopes of a late-season rally under Shakespeare, it leaves unanswered questions about why things had gone so badly wrong under Ranieri.
Asked if he wanted the job full-time, Shakespeare said: “My remit was get them ready for Liverpool and I have done that. Let’s see what happens.”
Liverpool could have provisionally gone third with victory, but instead they remain fifth, 14 points below leaders Chelsea and a point behind fourth-place Arsenal having played a game more.
Jurgen Klopp’s side, who replied through Philippe Coutinho, have won only one of their last seven league games and look a shadow of the team who looked poised to challenge for the title just weeks ago.
“We let them be the Leicester of last year — that’s our fault,” Klopp said.
“We should get criticised. This inconsistency makes absolutely no sense.”
– Sumptuous –
The first sign that Leicester’s players might be about to wind the clock back came on the team sheet, where Shinji Okazaki replaced Ahmed Musa from last week’s 2-1 Champions League loss away to Sevilla.
Save for the presence of Wilfred Ndidi and the absence of the departed N’Golo Kante, it was the team that won the title and there was energy and aggression to Leicester’s play from the off.
Vardy set the tone within seconds, flying in on Sadio Mane with a challenge that perhaps should have earned him a caution, and before long the visitors’ goal was bring peppered.
Simon Mignolet was tested three times in the first 18 minutes, fielding a header from Robert Huth, pushing Okazaki’s flicked header behind and parrying from Vardy, while Huth headed over.
The breakthrough came in the 28th minute and it was lifted straight from Leicester’s 2015-16 songbook.
Marc Albrighton’s slide-rule pass freed Vardy to scuttle in behind Joel Matip and steer a shot past Mignolet for his first goal in eight league games.
The King Power Stadium erupted and the home fans were on their feet again in the 39th minute as Drinkwater got in on the act.
Albrighton’s cross from the left was headed away by James Milner and fell kindly for Drinkwater, who speared a sumptuous 25-yard shot into the bottom-right corner.
Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel showed alertness to thwart Coutinho and Emre Can either side of Drinkwater’s strike and Coutinho tested him again early in the second half.
Vardy put the hosts 3-0 up on the hour, leaping above Can to glance a fine header past Mignolet from Christian Fuchs’s in-swinging cross.
An ode to the popular Ranieri from the home fans had just faded away when Coutinho netted in the 69th minute, slotting in from Can’s pass to deny Leicester a first clean sheet in 11 matches.
But despite late pressure, they succeeded in holding Klopp’s men at arm’s length, with Schmeichel denying substitute Divock Origi and fumbling a Coutinho strike just wide of his right-hand post.