Claudio Ranieri, the Leicester City manager, ranks his East Midlands guerrillas only fourth in the list of favourites to win the Premier League title, behind Tottenham, Arsenal and Manchester City in that order.
The Italian made his name as the Chelsea “Tinkerman”, forever chopping and changing his teams, but now the tinkering is with the minds of others as he talks up the title chances of Leicester’s rivals.
No matter that the evidence screams otherwise, as their dream acquires ever greater weight, with West Bromwich Albion next at the King Power Stadium. Ranieri is doing everything in his power to shift the focus from his team, who are two points clear with 11 games to go.
“Tottenham is strong in every situation; in defence, in attack. Everybody is speaking about Leicester, nobody is speaking about Tottenham. In my opinion, they are the favourites, then Arsenal, then City,” he said.
“I understand we are the surprise. This is a fantastic story and it is good energy but if we are realistic, you say, yes, Leicester have had a fantastic season but the real competitors are City, Arsenal and Tottenham.”
Asked if he was just being mischievous, deflecting attention to protect his players from the increasing frenzy, Ranieri added: “I think Mauricio Pochettino would agree with me. Slowly, slowly, quiet, quiet he goes. You ask me a question and I tell the truth, what I think.”
Ranieri will be without his French dynamo N’Golo Kanté at the heart of his midfield for at least two matches due to a hamstring strain. In will come Andy King alongside Danny Drinkwater. “It’s a little painful, [Kanté] suffered during all of the season and now we want to give him some rest. Two matches and he can restart,” Ranieri said.
“All the season he had a problem with the other leg and now this time the new leg. Maybe he made a compensation and charged too much on the other leg. He has been extraordinary but I am very confident because we played King and he has started [the season] very well. I am very confident with him.”
Kanté’s rise to prominence this season is symbolic of the progress Leicester have made, a little-known talent who has flowered into one of the most effective defensive cogs in the Premier League. Ranieri must hope his unavailability is not the start of an unwanted trend.
Leicester’s rise is underpinned to a degree by luck with injuries. Ranieri has been able to call on his key players for the whole league campaign. Kanté is one of five ever-presents, alongside top scorer Jamie Vardy, captain Wes Morgan, Marc Albrighton and goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel. Vardy’s strike partner Riyad Mahrez has missed only one match and midfield pillars Drinkwater and Shinji Okazaki just two.
Ranieri has broken the title run-in into two phases, before and after the international break at the end of this month. “These matches until the break are our real key,” he said. “I understand everyone asks will we win the title. I don’t know. Let me get past the next four matches, then I might say something more.”