Craig Shakespeare is preparing for the biggest game in Leicester’s 133-year history but the presence of Claudio Ranieri is still looming large.
On the eve of their Champions League quarter-final first leg against Atletico Madrid, Shakespeare was being forced to insist that his conscience is clear amid suggestions from Ranieri that a member of backroom staff was working against him.
Ranieri was sacked in February nine months after lifting the Premier League title and broke his silence on Monday by claiming that someone within the club was plotting his dismissal.
Though Ranieri refused to identify who he was referring to, the uncertainty has raised question marks over Shakespeare’s involvement as there have been accusations that he was marginalised earlier in the season.
But Ranieri’s former assistant offered a staunch defence of his relationship with the Italian at the Vicente Calderon Stadium on Tuesday, saying there was no fall-out before or after the departure that polarised opinion across football.
“I am quite comfortable with my own conscience, so I can’t do anything about that,” said Shakespeare. “Free speech is there for anybody, I don’t have a problem with it.
“[After he left] I spoke to him and he thanked me for my time. I thanked him and there has never been any falling out. It’s football and I am glad to see that he is enjoying his football again.
“My stance is still the same. We never had a falling out. I haven’t seen the interview live, but I think I have answered the question.”
It was an uncomfortable moment for Shakespeare, who has won six of his seven matches since replacing Ranieri as manager, and an unwanted aside to a potentially pivotal game in Leicester history.
Leicester are the sole representatives from England left in the competition and face their most significant test against last season’s beaten finalists, managed by shrewd and streetwise tactician Diego Simeone.
Last season’s miracle men started their European adventure as 100-1 outsiders but have assumed the appearance of Champions League veterans to reach the quarter-finals.
The stakes will be high in Atletico’s bearpit, however, with Jamie Vardy, Robert Huth and Islam Slimani one booking away from a suspension that will rule them out of the second leg at the King Power Stadium.
“We are very well disciplined as a team, but yes, the players will be reminded about their responsibilities and not to get any stupid cards for things like encroaching,” said Shakespeare.
“It is something we will talk about with the players. Playing in the Champions League has been a new experience for us but we have enjoyed it. We are there to compete and not make the numbers up.
“These players have earned their opportunity and we intend to keep that going on Wednesday night.”
Atletico are third in La Liga, one place above Sevilla, who Leicester defeated over two legs in the round of 16, and have only lost three games from the last 25.
Antoine Griezmann, the France international with 25 goals this season, is the danger man but Simeone’s squad possesses a number of other stars including Slovenian goalkeeper Jan Oblak and attacking midfielder Saul Niguez.
But Simeone has warned that Vardy could prove equally dangerous for Leicester, after the England international’s return to form under Shakespeare.
“I like him, I really rate him as striker. He is the kind of powerful striker Atletico have had. He also gives the team a lot of depth, and makes life really difficult for defenders to get ball out,” he said.
“He is very dangerous and if we make any mistakes, he will punish us. Last season he was very consistent, very good. This season as we all know he was struggling a little bit at the start but now he seems to be back.”
Leicester’s road to the last eight has been a capricious route for many of their players, including Kasper Schmeichel.
Seven years ago the Leicester goalkeeper was playing in League Two with Notts County but is now regarded as one of the best in his profession in Europe. He was outstanding in both legs against Sevilla.
“When you look at the DNA of our team, the type of characters and the journeys, the lower league rejections, these are the kind of nights you want,” he said. “When I was in League Two, playing these games was what I was wanting to aim for. The big-pressure games like this, this is what you live for, what you play for.
“Leicester’s European history is not exactly extensive, so we are aware of the previous games against Atletico [Leicester were knocked out of the Uefa Cup by the Spanish club in 1997] and are obviously hoping for a better outcome.”
Wes Morgan, the captain, has travelled to Madrid but misses out with a back injury, but £15 million signing Wilfred Ndidi has recovered from a groin problem and is expected to start.