Eye On EPL

Foxes must keep believing, yet not think they're already champs

With seven rounds of matches left in the English Premier League after this week's international break, we are entering what Alex Ferguson has labelled as "squeaky bum" time.

It will be tense, it will be intense and with this being one of the most extraordinary seasons in recent EPL history, it will be interesting to see how well the surprise league leaders Leicester City can fend off their nearest challengers Tottenham and Arsenal.

The Foxes have a five-point lead over Spurs, but such an advantage can be wiped out if they suffer a sudden dip in form. And the league has seen its fair share of memorable late-season slip-ups since it began in 1992.

In the 1995-96 season, for instance, Newcastle blew a 10-point lead in January and ended as runners-up to Manchester United after the Red Devils overtook them in mid-March.

Liverpool had held a five-point lead over Manchester City with three matches to go in the 2013-14 season, but a 0-2 home loss to Chelsea followed by a 3-3 draw with Crystal Palace denied the Reds their first league title since 1990.

That they have managed to hold on in the title race for a large chunk of the season should give them confidence and belief that they can stay on top.

Even United are not safe from slipping up late. They had led by eight points over City with six matches left in the 2011-12 season, but a 4-4 draw against Everton handed the initiative back to their city rivals, and they ended up losing the title on goal difference.

With the end - and trophy - within their sights, Leicester could find themselves having to cope with the burden of high expectations, especially since it seems that neutral fans are beginning to root for this unfancied club to land their first-ever domestic top-flight league title.

Hopefully, by now, they have already learnt to cope with the pressure of being league leaders.

That they have managed to hold on in the title race for a large chunk of the season should give them confidence and belief that they can stay on top.

I have been in winning positions before in the S-League with the Singapore Armed Forces FC and Tampines Rovers.

I feel it is easier to play when you are at the top, because you have the winning mentality formed by having beaten many teams to reach the top.

Those victories make everyone in the team feel pumped-up and confident, and you just cannot wait to get onto the pitch for the next game.

It should be the same at Leicester, but they have to be careful not to start thinking that they are already champions.

Full credit then to their manager Claudio Ranieri, who has smartly played down all talk of the Foxes winning the EPL title since his team replaced Arsenal to occupy the top spot in January.

Last week, when the Foxes were five points clear at the top, the Italian said: "Can you imagine Leicester achieving the Europa League? Unbelievable. That is our goal."

Two wins later and with a Europa League spot secured, he said: "Champions League is close and it would be a fantastic achievement."

One match, one target at a time. Hardly any talk of the EPL title so far.

Perhaps that is helping to keep his players grounded on their feet.

Some might argue that they are feeling the pressure by scraping narrow 1-0 scorelines in their past four victories in the league.

But I think Tottenham and Arsenal are under bigger strains.

Why? Because they will not meet Leicester in their remaining fixtures, and thus cannot exert any influence by beating the Foxes.

The only thing they could wish for is a Leicester meltdown, not unlike what Newcastle suffered in 1996, when their manager Kevin Keegan infamously ranted on TV that he would "love it" if he could beat Ferguson.

Otherwise they have to keep winning their own games, and drag the title race until the end.

Then perhaps, favours are needed from United (May 1, Leicester's third-last game) and Chelsea (May 15, Leicester's last match), two potential banana skins for the Foxes.

After all as history has shown, teams - even those on the cusp of making history - can choke even with just three games left.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 22, 2016, with the headline 'Foxes must keep believing, yet not think they're already champs'. Print Edition | Subscribe