Leicester, United Kingdom | AFP |
Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri finally conceded on Friday that his top-of-the table side can win the Premier League title.
The Italian manager has spent the entire campaign downplaying the Foxes’ remarkable ascent, initially declaring the aim was 40 points before adjusting his targets to qualifying for the Europa League and then subsequently the Champions League.
With all of those milestones now safely secured, all that remains to cap an extraordinary campaign is the Premier League trophy itself and, for the very first time, Ranieri was prepared to admit his side are on the brink of history.
Leicester will kick off Sunday’s match against Swansea five points clear of second-placed Tottenham Hotspur, who face West Bromwich Albion on Monday.
Spurs capitalised on Leicester’s 2-2 draw with West Ham last Sunday by closing the gap 24 hours later with an imperious 4-0 triumph over Stoke City which, with four games left to go, has increased the pressure on the Foxes.
Publicly at least, Ranieri is retaining his trademark cool, telling reporters on Friday: “We are in the Champions League. Dilly ding, dilly dong! Come on! How big an achievement. It is fantastic. Terrific.
“Well done to everyone — the owners, fans, players and staff. It is a great achievement. Unbelievable — and now we go straightaway to try to win the title. Only this remains.
“I know Mauricio Pochettino (the Tottenham manager) is saying ‘keep calm’. I wanted 79 points, what we have (73) isn’t enough and now we have to fight more.”
‘Moment to push’
Ranieri added: “I talk to my players. Now is the right moment to push. Always I believe. I’m a positive man. If Tottenham go over us then congratulations.
“But I prefer to stay five points higher! It is exciting.
“Do I think Spurs win the last four? Yes. I think they win. But also we win and then..exciting — if we win the title then it is unbelievable.”
Against Swansea, Leicester will be without leading goalscorer Jamie Vardy, who will be missing for at least one match through suspension following his controversial dismissal for two bookings — the second for diving — during the clash with the Hammers.
However, having accepted an FA charge of improper conduct after confronting referee Jon Moss, the England striker could be banned for at least one further game.
Ranieri added: “We know he has one match off and our preparation is without him. He trained very well and he was not happy but he enjoyed the training session.
“We knew he had a suspension and then we move on.”
Asked if he would like to see a change in FA rules that currently prevent appeals against two yellows, Ranieri replied: “Maybe we hope but now I don’t want to put my energy into this case. My focus is only on Swansea. It is a difficult match.”
Ranieri backed England manager Roy Hodgson’s assessment that Vardy should not have been sent off for diving. “It’s not only sympathy, it’s the truth,” he added. “He is going very fast and when you touch something you lose balance. Maybe it’s not a penalty but sure it’s not a yellow card.
“It’s important because Roy is an honest man and said what he watched. When a man without a (club) team says ‘in my opinion it’s this’ it’s normal.”
Ranieri refused to be drawn on whether Leonardo Ulloa, whose coolly-taken last-gasp penalty rescued a point for the Foxes last weekend, would replace Vardy.
“Leo deserves to play but before Leo there is a team and I think about what is the best team.”
Vardy, Riyad Mahrez and N’Golo Kante are all up for England’s Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year award, which will be announced on Sunda, and Ranieri has praised the trio’s achievement.
“It is fantastic,” he added. “I don’t know how many times three players of Leicester were involved. Amazing.”