London: Premier League champions Leicester City sacked Italian manager Claudio Ranieri on Thursday, nine months after he clinched one of soccer's most remarkable triumphs but with the team now hovering above the relegation zone.
Ranieri's side stunned the sporting world when they secured a maiden English top-flight title last May, having begun the season as 5000-1 outsiders, but have struggled to repeat those heroics in the current campaign.
They are currently 17th in the table, a point and a place above the bottom three, having lost their past five league matches. They are the only side in the top four English divisions without a league goal in 2017.
"Leicester City Football Club has tonight (Thursday) parted company with its first team manager, Claudio Ranieri," the club said in a statement.
"Claudio, appointed City manager in July 2015, led the Foxes to the greatest triumph in the club’s 133-year history last season, as we were crowned champions of England for the first time. His status as the most successful Leicester City manager of all time is without question," it added.
"However, domestic results in the current campaign have placed the club’s Premier League status under threat and the board reluctantly feels that a change of leadership, while admittedly painful, is necessary in the club’s greatest interest."
The decision came 24 hours after the team put in a spirited performance in a 2-1 Champions League last 16 first-leg defeat at Sevilla with former Leicester and England striker Gary Lineker leading a chorus of disapproval among the pundits.
"After all that Claudio Ranieri has done for Leicester City, to sack him now is inexplicable, unforgivable and gut-wrenchingly sad," Lineker said on Twitter.
Ranieri had come under pressure following Leicester's amazing title success, with the team battling relegation amid media reports suggesting he had lost the dressing room.
The club gave him "unwavering support" in a statement two weeks ago, but Leicester suffered another low last weekend when they lost in the FA Cup fifth round at third-tier Millwall.
Leicester's disjointed performances have been a far cry from their relentless accumulation of points last year.
The Midlands club, who had narrowly avoided relegation the previous season, clinched the title by 10 points with a brand of fast-paced, counter-attacking football that played to the strengths of their inexpensively-assembled squad.
Yet Ranieri, who had never previously won a league title in an itinerant career that included spells at Juventus, AS Roma, Inter Milan, Monaco and Chelsea, has struggled to get the best from his players this season.
Having lost dynamic midfield enforcer N'Golo Kante to Chelsea, the likes of striker Jamie Vardy and playmaker Riyad Mahrez have misfired in a stuttering title defense.
Vardy, who got 24 league goals last term, has managed five in the current one, while a Leicester defense that conceded 36 on their way to the title have already shipped 43 in 25 games.
The club's current difficulties forced their Thai owners to act, according to vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha.
"We are duty-bound to put the club’s long-term interests above all sense of personal sentiment, no matter how strong that might be," Srivaddhanaprabha said.
"Claudio has brought outstanding qualities to his office. His skillful management, powers of motivation and measured approach have been reflective of the rich experience we always knew he would bring to Leicester City.
"His warmth, charm and charisma have helped transform perceptions of the club and develop its profile on a global scale. We will forever be grateful to him for what he has helped us to achieve," he added.