LEICESTER. — The experience of being part of a relegation battle has proven invaluable for Leicester City as it has helped them cope with the pressure of being at the other end of the English Premier League soccer table, influential winger Riyad Mahrez has said. Under former manager Nigel Pearson, Leicester survived a protracted fight against the drop last season by winning seven of their last nine matches to finish 14th.
In a remarkable reversal of fortunes, Claudio Ranieri’s side are currently top of the standings, five points ahead of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur with nine games remaining. “No pressure. We are playing as always. We just work hard for everyone. We are just a good team, good teammates and we are doing well. We have to keep going,” Mahrez told British media.
“Last year was very difficult. Last year we had pressure. Last year gave us more experience and we are now in a different situation . . . we are playing for the title. It’s something crazy, but that’s the reality. You have to enjoy it.”
Meanwhile, manager Ranieri has urged the club to reward head of recruitment Steve Walsh, who brought Mahrez to the King Power Stadium, and assistant manager Craig Shakespeare with new contracts to help the Foxes build on this season’s success.
“It is very important to keep them. I ask them to sign the same as my contract (until 2018) because I have a very good relationship with all my staff,” Ranieri said.
Leicester will continue their chase for a first top-flight title in the club’s 132-year history when they host second-bottom Newcastle United on Monday.
And only the most faithful of Manchester City supporters would bet on Manuel Pellegrini ending his reign as manager with another Premier League title, but today’s trip to Norwich at least offers the chance to strengthen their hold on a top-four spot.
Pellegrini’s side have been consistently successful against the teams towards the foot of the table this season and maintained that record by beating Aston Villa 4-0 last Saturday, ending a run of three successive league defeats in the process.
City are 10 points behind leaders Leicester with 10 games to play; and their belief they can still overturn that deficit lies in the fact they have made late runs to win the title in two of the last four seasons.
Under Roberto Mancini in 2012, City were eight points behind Manchester United with six games left, yet finished top.
And two seasons ago, Pellegrini’s team were nine points behind Liverpool with five games to play — albeit with two matches in hand — and ended up two points clear at the end of the campaign.
“I think it is important not to think about how many games we need to win,” said Pellegrini, who will be replaced by Bayern Munich boss Pep Guardiola at the end of the season.
“It’s just important to try and win the next game. From now until the end of the season, we must be focussed on each game and try to win.
“For every team, whether they have experience of a title run-in or not, there is a lot of pressure in the last part of the season.
“Maybe if you are not used to being involved, then the pressure is a little bit more. But normally the last five games are very difficult for all the teams because it doesn’t matter if you play well or badly, you just have to win the games — so nerves are important at that moment.”
What counts against City this time is their inability to beat the better teams in the division.
Of the 50 points Pellegrini’s side have gained this season, only nine have come from the 13 matches they have played against sides currently in the top half.
They have tended to beat the teams at the bottom, though, which is why a trip to Norwich offers them reason for optimism.
Alex Neil’s side will kick off in the relegation places having taken just one point from their last nine games.
The Canaries, promoted via the play-offs last season, last tasted victory on January 2 when Southampton were beaten 1-0.
That game was followed by City’s 3-0 win at Carrow Road in the FA Cup and Neil soon saw his players throw away a 3-1 lead to lose 5-4 at home to Liverpool and allow West Ham to come back from two goals down.
The Scot was adamant, however, that if Norwich did go down, it would not be through a lack of effort.
“I don’t think anybody could say about my players that they are not trying or that they are giving up,” he said.
“In the last few games these guys are losing teeth and getting gashed heads and everything, and they keep going and they keep trying. I am working as hard as I possibly can to make it work.
“The fans have been in great form, they have stuck with us, we have not given them a lot to shout about.
“There is no reason for the fans to back us as much as they have done because we have not given them much, and that disappoints me greatly because I want to do well for this club and for them.”
(All 5pm unless otherwise stated)
Today: Norwich v Manchester City (2:45pm); Bournemouth V Swansea; Stoke City v Southampton.
Tomorrow: Aston Villa V Tottenham (6pm).
Monday: Leicester City v Newcastle (10pm). — Reuters.