As pressure rises, can Premier League leaders Leicester seal the deal?
Claudio Ranieri says his team are confident they won’t collapse
Humble Leicester City’s miraculous quest for the Premier League title has captivated imaginations around the world, but now, Claudio Ranieri’s men must finish the job.
Five points clear of second-place Tottenham Hotspur, the 5,000-1 outsiders embark upon a defining run of four matches on Sunday when Swansea City visit the King Power Stadium.
All season long, Ranieri has played the caution card, checking off Leicester’s achievements one by one – survival, European qualification, a Champions League berth – but now that the finishing line is in sight, he has urged his players to strike for home.
“Now we go straight away to try to win the title,” the Italian told his pre-match press conference.
“Yes man, only this remains. I wanted 79 points and we have to fight more now. I talk to my players: ‘Come on, now is the right moment to push.’
“I always believe. I am a positive man. If Tottenham go above us, congratulations, but I prefer to be five points ahead.”
Leicester’s fate remains in their own hands, but the mood around the central England city has taken on a more ominous tone in the aftermath of last weekend’s chaotic 2-2 draw with West Ham United.
Leicester went into that game seven points clear, but a frantic encounter in which attacking talisman Jamie Vardy was sent off after receiving a second yellow card for diving has changed the picture significantly.
Substitute Leonardo Ulloa’s stoppage-time penalty enabled Leicester to rescue a point and extend their unbeaten home run to 13 games, but Spurs promptly trimmed their advantage with a slick 4-0 win at Stoke City.
Lose on Sunday, and Spurs can close to within two points by beating West Bromwich Albion on Monday.
Vardy will miss Sunday’s game through suspension and is also likely to be unavailable for next weekend’s thorny trip to a resurgent Manchester United after accepting a Football Association misconduct charge over his furious reaction to his dismissal.
The West Ham game would have been costlier still without Ulloa’s 95th-minute intervention, but it nonetheless served to allow nerves to creep into the King Power.
Following weeks of anticipation of a jubilant Leicester coronation, the spectre of a disastrous collapse is now drifting into view.
Steven Gerrard, who came within a whisker of leading Liverpool to the title as captain in 2014, wrote in the Daily Telegraph this week: “Now they’re in the midst of a different physical and psychological challenge.
“The hunters became the hunted and it has become their title to lose, every misstep scrutinised to levels they would never have experienced before.
“Suddenly, it is not only a case of loving every minute, but there is a fear of failure to try to banish, too.”
The absence of Vardy, Leicester’s top scorer with 22 goals, means that Ranieri will have to change his starting XI for the first time in seven games.
Ulloa is expected to fill in alongside Shinji Okazaki up front, but Ranieri could elect to start an extra wide player such as Jeff Schlupp or Demarai Gray and move the influential Riyad Mahrez infield.
Swansea’s unbeaten three-game run came to an end in a 3-0 defeat at Newcastle United last weekend and although they are 10 points clear of the relegation zone, they are not yet mathematically safe.
Swansea head coach Francesco Guidolin admits that he would love to see his friend and compatriot Ranieri win the title, but he has warned him not to expect any favours.
“This is an important game for Leicester, but it is for us as well,” Guidolin said.
“I will give Claudio one of my favourite wines – a Montepulciano d’Abruzzo – but my job is to see my team play well and fight against the first team in the table.”
Central midfielders Leon Britton and Jack Cork are both available for Swansea – beaten 3-0 in December’s reverse fixture – following back and head problems respectively.