James Lawton: Leicester's season a stunning surge built on respect
It was supposed to be the throwaway Premier League title, the one to discard as a freak of football nature, but who doesn't want to embrace it now?
Who isn't riveted by the possibility that Leicester City, brought to a fine pitch of ambition by their sometimes wacky, but consistently warm, manager Claudio Ranieri might just be 48 hours away from a decisive strike for glory?
Improbable glory? Not any longer. No matter they escaped relegation last spring by a blood-draining margin. They have run so hard, so brilliantly, that an audience which has already spread across a far wider football world than that of the tribal warfare of the English game has been swept up in the drama.
It is primed not to produce the pat on the head that goes to mere over-achievement but for one of those gut-deep roars which greets a team of champions.
Because this, surely, is the potential of Ranieri's often sublime runners as they seek three more points against their skilled and resourceful visitors Southampton tomorrow. If their nearest rivals, Tottenham, stumble at Anfield on this evening Leicester will be playing for an eight-point margin with six games left. Then, of course, everything is before them, the title so close they might reach out and touch it.
When the 64-year-old Ranieri contemplates the prospect he might be savouring the fine spring lamb and delicate wine favoured on the dining tables of his native Rome. He says: "We just have to be focused. Sometimes I've said we are on the last turn and now we are on the final home straight.
"Now I want to see my horses, how they run. I remember also the start of the season. I have not forgotten. The goal then was to save the team…now everybody is speaking about us. Not only in England, all over the world. Everybody is pushing behind us and it is a great energy we feel. If in the end, someone is better than us, we still had a fantastic achievement."
If there is an authentic - and more deserving - threat to Leicester we will know better early tomorrow evening.
Certainly, it now seems to reside mainly in the ability of the superb young coach Mauricio Pochettino's Spurs to be the latest to exploit the transitional phase of Jurgen Klopp's reign at Liverpool. And if it should happen, and Leicester run into a barricade raised by Southampton, only the excessively romantic are likely to voice a quibble.
Not only have Spurs had a fine league season, they have also deeply questioned the theory that the Premier League is no longer capable of adequately re-seeding the English national team. In Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Eric Dier and Danny Rose they have contributed more than a quarter of a new and more optimistic England. They have also injected a whole new drive - and a fresh level of passion.
But then it is also true that if this young Tottenham are about so many positive attributes, and not least the power of a superior coach to release high-quality talent, they are not Leicester, they do not quite provoke the same rush of blood.
This is because for so much of the season Leicester City have been not so much a football team as a collective battle cry. Ever since Christmas, the point of their breakdown, the moment when their brightest horizon slips beyond reach, has been widely anticipated. Give unto Leicester City what is theirs, the more benign judges declared, but do not include the long run for home, the last strides to glory.
So much for measured, charitable opinion. That was put into sharp perspective by the Crystal Palace manager - and most recent Leicester victim - Alan Pardew. He is not normally among the sunnier losers and he said how much he regretted the loss of momentum created by an FA Cup win over Reading. However, he was also quick to say, "We are down and desperate now but Leicester are on top of the league for a reason. They have a lovely balance to the team. They will be difficult to catch and would be worthy champions."
It was a touch of generosity that is now a burgeoning consensus.
Ranieri's Leicester have simply run and played beyond the doubts. In Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez they have forwards of marvellous nerve and a confidence that seems to well up in direct proportion to the pressure applied. Vardy's two goals in England's internationals against world champions Germany and Holland spoke of a superbly developed instinct to find the weak point of a defence. The goal that stunned Berlin's Olympic stadium was an unanswerable intervention, something that came from the highest class of finishing.
Throughout the team there is plainly a growing belief not in some mad adventure but an increasingly poised exploration of the possible.
There is also the dawning realisation that Ranieri, brusquely dismissed by Chelsea's Roman Abramovich after being branded The Tinkerman and more recently hounded out of the Greek national team after a catastrophic home defeat by the Faroe Islands, has now created the possibility - no, probability, say the odds men - of one of the three or four most stunning title grabs in the history of English football.
For those of sufficient age they can be recalled easily enough. In 1962, the year after the double triumph of the beautiful Spurs team of Danny Blanchflower, Dave Mackay, John White and Cliff Jones, future World Cup winner Alf Ramsey completed Ipswich Town's journey from the third division to the peak of the English game.
Bobby Charlton remembers retreating from the bucolic Ipswich fortress in a state of some confusion.
"We went there very confidently," he said. "We thought we had so much more experience, and more talented players, but we just couldn't handle their tactics."
They hinged largely on the superb passing of a deep-lying Scottish left winger named Jimmy Leadbetter. Many years later Charlton met Leadbetter in an Edinburgh street. Said Leadbetter, "Alf Ramsey was a strange fellow in some ways but there was one thing for sure ... he knew about football."
Much the same could be said of Brian Clough, whose title wins with Derby County in 1972 and Nottingham Forest six years later ambushed the football establishment. When Clough was fired by Derby soon after his triumph, his players threatened to hack down the boardroom door with an axe. At Nottingham, where he also won two European Cups, he engendered the same kind of loyal response from his players despite some often heavy-handed rule.
One of his players the Scottish international Archie Gemmill, said, "Don't ask me why, but we play for Cloughie with everything we have. He has the ability to bring the best out of us."
At Leicester it is the same story with Ranieri - but for strikingly different reasons. Ranieri has come to trust the instincts of his players and it is plainly a requited love affair.
Says the earth-moving Vardy, "The boss has created a perfect atmosphere ... he gives us a bit of input, listens to some of the things we say. That goes a long way with a player. But most important of all is respect and he won that a long time ago."
At one point Ranieri suspected he might be involved in a miracle, an experience a man from Rome might feel he knows something about … Now, his feet, like his ambition, are rooted a lot closer to the ground. As he says: "I just want to watch my players run."
This weekend he will surely never have felt less alone.