And then there were two

Shinji Okazaki wheels away to celebrate what turned out to be the winner with his strike partner Jamie Vardy, as Leicester City earned a 1-0 win over a Rafa Benitez-led Newcastle side. With eight games to go, Leicester are five points ahead of second
Shinji Okazaki wheels away to celebrate what turned out to be the winner with his strike partner Jamie Vardy, as Leicester City earned a 1-0 win over a Rafa Benitez-led Newcastle side. With eight games to go, Leicester are five points ahead of second-placed Tottenham in the race for the EPL title.PHOTO: REUTERS

Saints manager Koeman says title race will be contested by just Leicester and Tottenham

LONDON • Leicester City's 1-0 win over Newcastle United on Monday sent them five points clear of Tottenham Hotspur at the top of the English Premier League.

And, according to Southampton manager Ronald Koeman, it also effectively ended the title challenges of Manchester City and Arsenal

While Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri has consistently batted away the "favourites" tag, with the season winding down, his side have amassed 63 points, five more than Spurs, with eight matches to go.

They also stand 11 points clear of third-placed Arsenal and 12 ahead of Manchester City.

While both those sides have a game in hand, Koeman said Leicester's win changed the complexion of the title race.

"It will be a new situation for (Leicester) now - 11 points from Arsenal, 12 points from City. Arsenal and City are out of the title (race)," said the Dutchman, who appeared as a pundit on Sky Sports television.

"It will be a fight between Tottenham and Leicester, and that makes the difference between before the game and after the game.

"Before this game it was maybe a fight between four or five."

Leicester, who made an unlikely escape from relegation last term, were among the bookmakers' favourites to go down this season but now need a maximum of 20 points from the last eight games to clinch their first top-flight title.

Ranieri insisted he is not looking at the table and is doing his best to deflect the pressure off his players, but expectations among Leicester's supporters will run rampant after Shinji Okazaki's spectacular bicycle kick earned the win.

"They must dream, we must work," Ranieri said.

It was a tense, scrappy performance against a Newcastle team energised by the arrival of Rafael Benitez as manager.

"The first half I was a little angry because we played so wide when we lost the ball and weren't so compact with good shape," Ranieri said.

"They went through the middle and so I asked the players to stay a little more compact.

"The first half we lost so many second balls. It wasn't so smart but in the second half it was much better."

The Italian acknowledged it was not one of Leicester's more impressive displays, but he made the point that, with only eight games remaining, it was all about results now.

"I know very well we played better against Aston Villa and in the last match here against West Bromwich Albion. But we drew both matches. At this point of the season the points are important, not how you play."

Ranieri hailed his team's spirit and urged his players to remain calm and ignore the hype around their unlikely title challenge.

With Tottenham not playing again until Sunday, Leicester have a chance to extend their advantage at the summit to eight points with a victory against Crystal Palace at Selhurst Park the day before.

Ranieri, however, insisted that he will not let his players get carried away.

"I understand there are so many voices, not just in Leicester but around the world, all the people are talking about Leicester but we must continue to stay calm, do our job and play our football," he said.

"We want to enjoy, we want to continue."

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2016, with the headline 'And then there were two'. Print Edition | Subscribe