Tuesday 16 January 2018

Leicester facing a new question: Is today the day?

It's going to be an emotional trip to Old Trafford for Ranieri, whatever the result

An image of Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City is projected onto the Ramada Encore hotel in Leicester. Photo: Getty
An image of Riyad Mahrez of Leicester City is projected onto the Ramada Encore hotel in Leicester. Photo: Getty

Miguel Delaney

Only a few weeks ago, one high-profile football figure was privately discussing Leicester City's season, and still dismissing their chances of lifting that pristine Premier League trophy. "They will not win it," he told a TV producer. "Ranieri will get too emotional again."

Claudio Ranieri did indeed get very emotional after the 2-0 win away to Sunderland on April 10, crying on the Stadium of Light pitch, but that has so far only enriched the story of their campaign and propelled it further forward. Throughout that campaign, Leicester's surge has been compared to Nottingham Forest's sensational run from promotion to the title in the space of a year across 1977 and 1978, and one story from that achievement has been commonly repeated around the King Power Stadium too.

Back then, as a way of motivating the players and keeping them primed, Brian Clough and the Forest staff would ask the squad the same provocative question every week: "Is today going to be the day?"

Was today going to be the day that they did what so many expected, and dropped points to finally start dropping away from the top?

"Is today going to be the day?"

It is a question that was so often asked of Leicester, right up to a few weeks ago. Now, it's being asked in a different way.

Is today going to be the day they do it? The day they make history?

If they beat Manchester United at Old Trafford this afternoon, Leicester will win their first title, an achievement that was supposed to be impossible in the modern era.

Claudio Ranieri's Leicester have spent less than £30million on their squad since last summer

The staggering facets of that potential feat have led to it being described in a number of increasingly grandiose ways over the last five weeks. "A fairytale"; "a movie script"; "a dream come true"; something that only happens "once every 50 years" - as Ranieri himself put it.

The Italian also said that "it's there, very close to us".

It's just that, when you get that close and thoughts like that begin to take shape, funny things can happen. It would be entirely in keeping with this unpredictable season if, now that Leicester's victory is so widely expected, they did the unexpected and let Tottenham Hotspur back into the race. A certain unsteadiness from the players would be entirely understandable today. The understandable giddiness around the city was impossible to miss on Friday as a public 'Back the Blues' campaign was launched. That giddiness, however, stopped at the walls of the King Power Stadium and the club's Belvoir Drive training ground.

Within both, Ranieri was doing his best to keep emotions in check, to keep the concentration that has taken them this far in the first place, seven points clear of the second-placed team with just three games to go. That was how the table settled after Spurs' surprise 1-1 draw at home to West Brom on Monday night, leaving Leicester three points from the title and so many of their players on edge, just wanting to get out there and finish the job.

"I was talking to some friends during the Tottenham game," Jeff Schlupp says, "and I was thinking we are literally one win away from a dream since I was young. It is surreal at times."

So, the next morning at training, Ranieri made sure to remind them of the very real task of having to go and get those points.

"Everyone knows not to get carried away," Schlupp explains. "He did mention that it is now a reality and how close we are. We had a meeting ready for the next game. He made a little speech before he did the analysis."

On Friday, Ranieri declared himself extremely happy with the team's training all week, but did refuse the attempts of international media to get a speech from him on what will actually happen if they win at Old Trafford, and what it would mean to finally win the first top-tier title of his career. He wasn't going to allow his thoughts to drift that far ahead, or to let any kind of distraction arise.

"Up until the training ground, people can dream, but I am a pragmatic man and we need three points more," Ranieri said. "We are fighting to try make this dream a reality, but it isn't yet. I can understand all the happiness around the city, but we have to work. This is a good opportunity and this is the reason we want to be focused. I know you want me to speak about something else, but let me be calm and wait. I think only on Manchester."

That setting provokes even more thought about it all. The home of the club to win more titles than any other in England, Old Trafford is described by Schlupp as the "perfect" place to win the league, but United are not exactly perfect opponents if you need a win to secure the trophy.

Louis van Gaal hopes Manchester United can postpone Leicester's title party for a little bit

This is no longer the ailing and inconsistent team of a few months ago, producing the poor form and football that is still likely to cost Louis van Gaal his job. United have greatly improved, but the Dutch coach's chances of staying at Old Trafford have not. In that regard, although Ranieri's progress at a more limited club has only increased the pressure on Van Gaal - since it highlights how United should have challenged for the title this season - the Italian will be able to empathise with his opposing manager today. Twelve years ago at Chelsea, Ranieri came to the end of a season enduring so much speculation that Jose Mourinho would replace him that summer, and that is precisely the prospect facing Van Gaal now.

United's deal with the Portuguese is not officially done, but more and more people at Old Trafford are now saying it is likely, even some of those who previously denied it. Mourinho has also been making plans as if he has the job, right down to potential signings and backroom staff. Some think there has now been too much contact for the process to be turned back, regardless of what happens.

Despite that, Mourinho's camp have still been playing what seem rather transparent games in the media - the Portuguese appearing at public events and being conspicuously linked to other jobs - while Ranieri notably spoke glowingly of Van Gaal as if he will continue.

"I think next season, it will be very, very hard to beat them," the Leicester manager said.

It will be very hard to beat them today.

Van Gaal may be playing for his United legacy as much as his future, and there would be no better way to leave than finishing in the top four with the club winning the FA Cup for the first time since 2004. The nature of last week's last-minute semi-final win over Everton enhanced the upbeat feeling around the club again, and the current good mood within the squad.

Manchester United's Marcus Rashford has netted seven goals in 13 appearances

Young players like Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial are expressing themselves, with Ranieri praising both. He managed Martial at Monaco until 2014, calling the 20-year-old "a phenomenal player".

The Italian is without one of his own season phenomenons in the suspended Jamie Vardy - who Ranieri described as his "RAF" - and that is all the more important to this game, given how susceptible Van Gaal's system has been to pace on the break. The leaders will have to adjust again.

It may be the wrong time to play United, and that may raise the one remaining danger to Leicester's long-anticipated deliverance.

If Ranieri's side don't win today, and Spurs beat Chelsea at Stamford Bridge tomorrow night to extend the title race to Saturday's match against Everton at the King Power Stadium, the wait could weigh down on the squad for the first time.

It could also cause the Italian to more deeply contemplate what it means for his own career, and bring the emotion that had been feared to disrupt Leicester's sense of focus. It is worth properly reflecting on where Ranieri is at from that perspective, and where his head might be at right now.

At 64 years of age, and after 28 years in management without ever winning a top title, managers don't usually get chances for redemptions like this. Ranieri is on the brink of the achievement he has long waited for, and that in a situation that has involved such long odds. It is a deeply admirable individual story in its own right, if somewhat obscured by an amazing season.

In circumstances like that, a serious amount of emotion - and even anxiety - would be entirely comprehensible. Yet, on Friday, Ranieri simply stated: "I'm not nervous." He then proved it by provoking a lot of laughter, in what was a relaxed press conference. He made jokes about all aspects of the campaign, especially his new catchphrase, a reference to the imaginary bell he shakes when he feels his squad are distracted. "Now I'm waiting for the whole stadium to sing 'dilly ding dilly dong'."

There is much genuine goodwill towards him, and it all follows from the "good vibes" he got from the squad right from the start.

Given the season that followed his first meeting with them, it is entirely fitting that it all started with a surprise. The players didn't actually know who would be replacing Nigel Pearson as they got together for pre-season in Austria.

"We were all gathered in a room," Schlupp explains, "and then he walked through. It was, 'yeah, wow, it's Ranieri'."

Many outside the club were underwhelmed when the appointment was properly announced but, by then, virtually all inside were on board.

"He almost filled us with confidence again," Schlupp says. "He said obviously how well we had done in the last 10 games of the [2014-15] season and said that he'd watched a lot of our games, that we were a lot better than where we were last season and to fill us with confidence. And the lads felt good about it - from the first training session onwards it was just good vibes. Since then we've carried it on really and took it to another level."

That's saying something. Schlupp is one of the few players at Leicester who has properly come up through the ranks, having been at the club since the age of 12, before the 2010 takeover and the move from Filbert Street to King Power Stadium.

"We've got pictures in the laundry room of the really old days up till now and we just look at them and have a laugh. It just shows how much of a family club Leicester City is and how close everyone is. Everyone gets on well. We've got people who've been here over 10 and 15 years and we've all gone through the journey together."

They're now at the final steps. They may well see a show of emotion from Ranieri, but the hope is it will be tears of joy.

Today could be the day, and a day for the ages.

The unlikely lads

 If Leicester City win the title, this will be the first in their history. The last 'first-time champions' were Nottingham Forest in 1977-78.

Since that Forest team, who won the title straight after promotion, no club has come from lower than seventh the previous season to become champions the next. Leicester will have come from 14th.

Leicester will be the first club to do so within two years of promotion since Leeds United in 1991-92. Since then, the shortest gap between promotion and the title is the three years it took Blackburn Rovers between 1992 and 1995.

With a population of just 330,000, Leicester will be the smallest urban area - and only one other than London or Manchester - to provide an English title winner since that Blackburn victory.

Leicester are estimated to have the 17th highest wage bill in the table. In the Premier League era, no club with a wage bill ranked lower than fourth has won it.

Claudio Ranieri will be the first Premier League manager to win what is a maiden top-tier title in his career since Howard Wilkinson with Leeds in 1991-92, and that after 28 years in management.

Fifteen of Leicester's main 24-man squad will be claiming the first major medal - not including lower-league titles - of their careers.

There are eight top-tier league medals in the Leicester squad, won by Robert Huth, Marcin Wasilewski, Gokhan Inler and Leonardo Ulloa. That will be the lowest of any title-winning side since Blackburn in 1994-95, who only had four.

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