LONDON. — Claudio Ranieri believes Leicester will pass an acid test of their title credentials with flying colours when the shock English Premier League soccer leaders face Manchester City today.
Ranieri’s side have provided one of the most captivating stories in the English Premier League era with their fairytale rise, but few outside the King Power Stadium believed Leicester would still be in the thick of the title race at this late stage of the campaign.
The Foxes weathered a potentially ruinous slump over the Christmas period as three wins in their last four games catapulted them back to the summit ahead of their seismic showdown with second-placed City at Eastlands.
While doubters questions their ability to last the pace, a Jamie Vardy-inspired 2-0 victory over Liverpool on Tuesday, and a recent success at top-four rivals Tottenham, convinced Ranieri his players are embracing the spotlight and won’t wilt under the pressure of battling for their first top-flight title.
“My players are very intelligent in every situation. Maybe everybody believes in something special and they are working for something special. This is important,” Ranieri said.
“I think all the people understand we are doing something extraordinary so far. What happens in the future, I don’t know, but already we gave a very good gift to our fans. What happened this season is not real.”
The closest Leicester have come to being crowned champions was a runners-up finish in 1929, their last major trophy was the 2000 League Cup and just seven years ago they were languishing in the third tier.
In contrast, big-spending City, Premier League winners in 2012 and 2014, have become experts at silverware polishing since they were taken over by their Abu Dhabi-based owners.
Yet incredibly, Ranieri’s astutely assembled bargain basement squad, currently three points ahead of City, find themselves just 14 games from footballing immortality.
The flip side of course is the potential damage a defeat might do to the morale of Ranieri’s players before they travel to Arsenal for another crucial clash next weekend.
City’s 0-0 draw at Leicester in December degenerated in a war of attrition but, buoyed by their midweek 1-0 win at Sunderland, French defender Gael Clichy expects Manuel Pellegrini’s team to impose themselves more successfully this time.
“We need to make ourselves hard to beat and that’s what we did,” Clichy said.
“When you come to somewhere like Sunderland and keep a clean sheet and win it’s really satisfying.
“We have Leicester on Saturday so let’s make it count and get those three points.”
Nothing could underline the unpredictable nature of the Premier League this season better than Leicester’s involvement in a top of the table fixture, while Chelsea’s clash with Manchester United — traditionally a key fixture in any title race — is relegated to relative irrelevance.
Chelsea’s stunning fall from grace less than a year after winning the title has left them 16 points adrift of the top four in mid-table obscurity.
United’s campaign has been almost as traumatic, with boss Louis van Gaal repeatedly pushed to the brink of resigning over fan and player unrest at his conservative tactics.
Sitting five points adrift of fourth placed Arsenal, van Gaal’s side desperately need a win at Stamford Bridge to avoid more opprobrium being heaped on the Dutch coach and his players.
Meanwhile, Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino has urged his players to work hard at making history rather than waste time talking about it.
Pochettino’s third placed club, who last the won the title in 1961, host Watford with genuine hopes of a title challenge. But Pochettino, whose side have won their last five matches, was in no mood to make predictions when asked about Tottenham’s chances.
“In football, in my experience, it’s better to show than to speak,” he said.
Tottenham’s north London rivals Arsenal are also five points behind Leicester and can’t afford another slip at Bournemouth following their midweek draw with Southampton.
“There is a long way to go and there is always a twist in the tale,” Gunners goalkeeper Petr Cech said.
“If we believe then we can still do it. There are more than enough games to put ourselves back at the top.”
Meanwhile, Liverpool could suffer the embarrassment of a mass exodus today with supporters’ groups calling on fans to leave their seats during the Premier League match against Sunderland at Anfield to protest a rise in ticket prices.
Two prominent groups have urged spectators to walk out in the 77th minute to express discontent at the club’s decision to charge 77 pounds ($112.09) for the most expensive ticket in Anfield’s redeveloped main stand next season, up from 59 pounds.
Liverpool also announced this week that some season tickets for the 2016-17 campaign would be priced at more than 1 000 pounds for the first time.
A group representing fans’ interests has been in talks with the club over ticket prices for more than a year and expressed disappointment earlier this week at Liverpool’s failure “to lead in a fairer approach to ticket prices”.
“LFC thinks its acceptable to make more money than ever before from supporters… Let’s make sure the owners know this is unacceptable. On 77 minutes, leave your seat and walk out,” the supporters’ group Spion Kop 1906 said in a statement on Twitter.
Today (all 5pm unless stated): Aston Villa v Norwich, Liverpool v Sunderland, Manchester City v Leicester (2:45pm), Newcastle v West Brom, Southampton v West Ham (7:30pm), Stoke v Everton, Swansea v Crystal Palace, Tottenham v Watford
Tomorrow: Bournemouth v Arsenal (3:30pm), Chelsea v Manchester United (6pm) — AFP.