LONDON • Claudio Ranieri believes Leicester City's next five league matches could define their season and make or break their title hopes.
The Premier League leaders take on Norwich City at home today, followed by West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday. They then travel to Watford before hosting Newcastle United and visiting Crystal Palace in what appears to be a relatively benign run of fixtures before next month's international break.
Although Ranieri is taking nothing for granted and has warned his players that Norwich will be tougher opponents than title rivals Arsenal, the Leicester manager admitted he is targeting the maximum 15 points from a block of games that "could be the key to our season".
Comparing the pursuit of the title to a horse race, he said: "I think we are at the turn, there is the last turn, then the run-in. The next five matches are the turn - then the run-in, and the goal is there. I think this is the key moment for us.
"I'm very focused on these five matches - after we can say where we are: 'We are here, OK, keep going,' or: 'No, what happened?'"
After taking six points from their past three games, against Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool, the Italian is aware that the pressure on his players to perform will intensify over the next few weeks. In this period, they are facing lower-profile opponents and struggling sides.
"This is a good thing to manage, because in the next year we want to grow up and stay at the high level," he said. "We have to have the confidence to manage this pressure. It's the first time, it's new for us but we have to keep doing what we are doing. I want them to be free spirits."
While Leicester's rivals in the title race have all been in action since the Foxes' 1-2 loss at Arsenal on Feb 14, Ranieri was able to give his players the luxury of a week off - something he has never done before in his managerial career.
"They are refreshed and ready for the last fight," said the 64-year-old. "The players are very hungry because we lost the match (at the Emirates) in the last second."
Having named an unchanged starting line-up for the last six league games, he will be forced into at least one alteration against Norwich, as Danny Simpson serves a one-match suspension following his red card at Arsenal. January signing Daniel Amartey is favourite to replace Simpson at right-back in what would be his Premier League debut. But Marcin Wasilewski will also come into contention.
The Canaries head for the King Power Stadium without a league victory since Jan 2 - a run that has plunged them firmly into relegation trouble and thrown the spotlight onto manager Alex Neil.
"My responsibility is to win games and at the moment we are not doing that," he said.
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