Ranieri cautious even as Leicester go 5 points clear

LONDON • Christmas Day 2014 and Leicester City were looking up at the rest of the Premier League, having failed to win in 12 matches.

Christmas Day 2015 and Claudio Ranieri's team will be peering down on the billionaires, the so-called established order and the beleaguered, after securing top spot with a 3-2 statement victory at Everton on Saturday.

Their transformation is to be savoured regardless of what unfolds over the next 21 games.

Ranieri underplayed the Christmas No. 1 spot even as he has heard talk of the most unlikely championship success.

"It means nothing," the Italian said of Leicester's place at the summit. "It means we are on a good run and in good form."

However, victory No. 11 from 17 matches was the stuff - whisper it - of champions.

Missing key players to injury and suspension, the visitors dug in when they had to, were clinical when opportunity arose and received the benefit of the doubt from the referee at vital moments.

Their commitment to the cause was unquestionable.

This was the kind of hard-fought away win on a cold, miserable day in England's north-west that Jose Mourinho revelled in during his title-winning pomp at Chelsea.

Having signalled the end of Mourinho's second coming last Monday, Ranieri reacted with a simple celebratory punch to the final whistle that followed two Riyad Mahrez penalties and a fine finish from the recalled Shinji Okazaki.

With the Algerian Mahrez on 13 goals and Englishman Jamie Vardy on 15, Leicester now have the league's two top marksmen.

Leicester's manager is not getting ahead of himself but their supporters had every reason to savour victory on Saturday.

It felt like a significant day for both managers. Roberto Martinez's designs on Champions League qualification are disappearing with a run of two wins in 10 league matches while his Leicester counterpart has been gathering momentum.

"Football is crazy and if it is crazy in this way, I am very happy," said Ranieri. "I am very, very honest.

"If we stay there at the end of April, I might then think about the title but for now I enjoy it.

"Today was a difficult, difficult, difficult match."

Eleven times in the Premier League era, the team leading at Christmas have gone on to win the title but the ever-cautious Ranieri was still more preoccupied with reaching the 40-point target he believes will guarantee Premier League safety.

Referring to Leicester having reached 38 points, the Italian told Sky Sports with a wry smile: "It's two less than 40. I think we'll have a very good Christmas Day but the day after, it's very difficult to come back here (to Merseyside)."

Leicester, who are five points clear at the top, visit Liverpool on Boxing Day with the comfort of knowing that no side leading the league at Christmas have finished lower than sixth.

THE GUARDIAN, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 21, 2015, with the headline 'Ranieri cautious even as Leicester go 5 points clear'. Print Edition | Subscribe