Claudio Ranieri appreciated the heartwarming welcome he received on his first managerial return to Leicester City but Jamie Vardy, unabashed by Watford’s apparent wish to have the game abandoned as the pitch became covered in snow, showed why he has never been allowed to go away as his two goals proved the difference between the sides.
The whole home crowd had taken to their feet just before kick-off to chant Ranieri’s name and applaud the manager who led their team to the Premier League title five years ago. It was an edifyingly emotional moment and clearly moved the Italian, but as the snow reportedly prompted the goalkeeper Daniel Bachmann to ask for the game to be called off, Vardy was intent on not making this too hospitable a return.
“He got the reception the fans wanted to give him,” Vardy said of his former manager. “We knew it was down to business on the pitch, though, and we wanted the win.
“It is different [the weather]. You see with the ref having to stop it [to clear the snow off the lines in the second half]. These are things you have to deal with. You have to stay professional and we did that. At one point their keeper was trying to get it called off with the ref. But pitches have the undersoil heating and we weren’t worried.”
There were pre-match handshakes from his former staff for the Watford manager but one of his most important old players had a more ambiguous welcoming gesture after giving Leicester the lead again in the 34th minute.
Vardy had revealed in his autobiography that his former manager nicknamed him “Radio Wanker” because of his incessant dressing-room chatter and he made a beeline towards the visitors’ dugout after making it 2-1 with a delicately dinked shot over Bachmann following James Maddison’s exquisite lofted pass.
Vardy raced up the touchline to the benches and then pointed towards Mike Stowell, a surviving member of Leicester’s coaching staff from the Ranieri era, who was stationed behind Ranieri.
Leicester’s leading goalscorer then made his point in rather more traditional fashion eight minutes later, heading on Maddison’s corner into the far corner of the net to make it 3-1 at half-time.
In the 16th minute, Jonny Evans, passed fit to start after a thigh injury, had played the free-kick that led to Maddison giving Leicester the lead.
Bizarrely, William Troost-Ekong opted – or received a shout – to duck under the long pass. That simply allowed Maddison to run in on the blindside and swivel to shoot in with his right foot. Following his goal and performance on Thursday, these are signs Maddison is gradually returning towards his best.
“We know when Madders [James Maddison] gets on the ball he has that creativity,” Vardy said. “It is about making the runs for him. It was a massive win.”
However swashbuckling Leicester can look going forwards, they are still defensively vulnerable on the transition. Kasper Schmeichel was counting his blessings when Cucho Hernández’s shot deflected heavily off Caglar Soyuncu and hit the inside of the post. Then Emmanuel Dennis was tripped by Wilfred Ndidi – who also gave a penalty away on Thursday – and Josh King converted to equalise. It was no more than Watford, buoyed by their 4-1 demolition of Manchester United eight days earlier, deserved at that stage.
Then came Vardy’s two goals before the snow came hammering down during the half-time interval, clearly having an impact on the players’ ability to keep their footing. Timothy Castagne, in particular, did not look comfortable.
If only Mo Salah has scored more than Vardy’s nine Premier League goals, then only the Liverpool striker has more goal involvements, assists included, than Dennis after the Watford striker made it 3-2 on the hour mark with his sixth goal since signing from Club Brugge for around £4.5m in the summer. He also has four assists to his name.
The Nigerian had just wasted one clear chance that he had earned by dispossessing Castagne but then squaring to King instead of shooting when he repeated the trick, nicking the ball off the Leicester right-back again before this time running through and dinking a cute shot over Schmeichel.
Play was held up for a couple of minutes at this point so that the Leicester groundstaff could sweep the lines of snow. As cries of “Ranieri” rang hospitably around the stadium, Leicester made the game safe when Harvey Barnes got in down the left-hand corner of the penalty area and squared the ball for Ademola Lookman to tap home for 4-2.