PARIS — Relying on his good old catenaccio, Claudio Ranieri won’t replicate with Nantes his historic triumph with Leicester in the English Premier League two years ago.
Still, the Italian manager is enjoying a tremendous stint at the helm of the French side.
Though behind the four clubs in the French league chasing Champions League qualification, Nantes has proved to be the best of the rest. At the Christmas break, Nantes was six points ahead of sixth-place Nice.
Trying to revive his career in France was not an easy bet for Ranieri, though.
The former Monaco coach returned to France in the last offseason following the surprise departure of fans’ favorite, Sergio Conceicao. After Conceicao led Nantes from 19th to a seventh-place finish — the team’s best performance in more than a decade — club officials wanted to keep the Portuguese coach. They failed to persuade him, and Ranieri agreed on a deal. But Ranieri’s arrival was announced amid widespread skepticism.
Ranieri, who was fired by Leicester a few months earlier, endured a difficult start. He lost his first two games. Nantes was thrashed by Marcelo Bielsa’s Lille 3-0 then beaten by Marseille 1-0.
Utterly disappointed, Nantes supporters wanted a quick reaction and Ranieri managed to turn things around with an eight-game unbeaten run.
He will find out this weekend if his team’s defensive stability can cope with Paris Saint-Germain’s attacking might when Ligue 1 resumes.
Boasting the third best defensive record behind Montpellier and PSG, Nantes has won its past three matches in all competitions without conceding, and produced nine clean sheets.
Nicolas Pallois, a key part of Ranieri’s successful backline defense, or catenaccio, is well placed to speak about his coach’s mindset.
“The main thing is not to concede, or the least possible, because we know it’s not possible not to concede any over a whole season,” Pallois said. “We do everything to defend well, and it works quite well. We must continue on this path.”
Nantes’ good results have been built on a good recruiting campaign and a solid back four in which right back Leo Dubois has also been excelling. In addition to Pallois, who was signed from Bordeaux for a reported 2 million euros fee, Nantes also astutely bought Ciprian Tatarusanu, who has quickly established himself as one of the most efficient and spectacular goalkeepers in the French league since his arrival from Fiorentina.
Seven of Nantes’ 10 league wins have been by 1-0.
“He solidified the team with lots of work on defensive tactics during the summer,” Dubois said about Ranieri, also extolling the psychological effect the former Juventus coach has on the players. “He uses images, speaks about our net as if it was his home, he tells us (to defend) as if we were protecting our children.”
With only 18 goals scored compared to PSG’s 58, Nantes is clearly lacking attacking power. Ranieri does not have at his disposal the same talent that Leicester had with Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez, but he has a reliable striker in Emiliano Sala. The Argentine has proved to be crucial when it really matters, scoring five winners in matches won by a single goal.
“Ranieri has brought his huge experience, his serenity, and an Italian style that we have seen sometimes in matches,” Sala told L’Equipe newspaper. “He wants us to have a defensive bloc that sits deep and is compact. For him, we have a kind of castle to protect.”
The good old catenaccio.