””

EYE ON EPL

Time for bosses to calm nerves amid final push

The tail end of the English Premier League season is often the most exciting - and it is not simply because with each game we get a clearer idea of where the trophy will end up at.

It is also the time of the campaign where injuries and suspensions take their toll on the teams, which is why I find this period intriguing - because it is times like these where the coaches are tested.

Jamie Vardy's red card against West Ham means league-leaders Leicester City will be without their top scorer for at least one league game. His suspension could even be extended if he is found guilty of abusing referee Jon Moss.

Liverpool, chasing a Europa League spot, have lost captain Jordan Henderson and key midfielder Emre Can to injuries recently.

Even second-placed Tottenham Hotspur are not off the hook. They have three key players - Eric Dier, Jan Vertonghen and Harry Kane - who are one yellow card away from missing either one or two games.

For me, at this stage, the most important thing is to keep the players' minds as fresh as possible - particularly for teams chasing a cause.

So, the managers of these teams find themselves in some kind of conundrum.

With four games left, what should Claudio Ranieri do, now that Leicester will be without arguably their best player of the season for at least one crucial match?

His players' morale will definitely be hit. They must have enjoyed playing with the in-form Vardy, and are already familiar to his style and runs, so it will not be easy to replace him.

Shinji Okazaki and Leonardo Ulloa are good players but they are clearly not at Vardy's level.

Should Ranieri change the team's system, one that has led them to the top of the table, to cater to the replacements?

As for Mauricio Pochettino, should he ask the three players to watch their challenges? Or should he free them to play with abandon and risk missing one match or, in Dier's case, two?

This is where a coach's tactical acumen, motivation and man-management skills will be needed.

For me, at this stage, the most important thing is to keep the players' minds as fresh as possible - particularly for teams chasing a cause.

When you are in a title race, the pressure can get to you, even before the match, such as when you enter the training ground. If you are not careful, this pressure can destroy some players.

I remember what my former coach Vorawan Chitavanich used to do at Tampines Rovers in 2010. Towards the end of the season, he would randomly prepare meals for the team, whipping up some of his specialty dishes. It was the best Thai food I've tasted.

But the point is - it took our minds off the pressure of a title race. We were so happy just sitting there and eating together as a team.

We might not have won the league that year, as Etoile FC clinched it on the final day of the season by a single point, but his methods kept us going even as our bodies were being pushed to the limits.

Similarly, I believe Ranieri has what it takes to guide his team to the title. The Italian coach has plenty of experience at the top and knows how to lift his charges' spirits whenever they suffer setbacks.

For instance, after the Foxes dropped two points against West Ham, instead of berating his players or the questionable referee decisions, Ranieri defended his striker and praised his team for their spirit instead.

He sure knows how to keep their morale up, and I'd be surprised if Leicester do not clinch the title.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Time for bosses to calm nerves amid final push'. Print Edition | Subscribe