Heart Of Football

Wily old Italian fox can't deny title's proximity

"In football, it can be within reach - but it is not yours until you have it in the pocket."

That is how Claudio Ranieri has described Leicester City's quest for the Premier League title.

But with every passing weekend, his Foxes might soon run out of words of denial. They are seven points clear, with five games to go, and even the pessimistic Signor Ranieri finds it hard to deny.

"We've made a good story," he admits. "But to make something you will remember in 30 or 40 years, we have to win. We didn't achieve anything yet. We have to fight, to stay focused and strong."

With Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez in your team, with N'Golo Kante having enough energy for two men, and with Wes Morgan and Robert Huth such forbidding pillars of strength in defence, who is Ranieri to question if Leicester have the fight, the focus and the strength?

The winning line is in Ranieri's sights now. The affability of the Italian is a cloak that hides inner steel and striving. He is 64 now and is guiding a team nobody gave even a remote chance of staying up, never mind winning the league at the start of his tenure last summer.

Yes, West Ham will push them at the King Power Stadium today. Yes, Dimitri Payet, with 12 goals and eight assists, has been the architect of the Hammers' own superb season.

But there again, Mahrez has contributed 16 goals and 11 assists. And Vardy isn't simply the scorer of 21 league goals, but a runner whose spirit makes everyone believe.

Let's be clear: The Foxes have had their grim, almost unwatchable run of matches of late. Last weekend at Sunderland was almost a turn-off for television viewers around the world, until Vardy scored twice to finish off Sunderland towards the bitter end.

Those goals brought Ranieri close to tears. The coach denied that was because he felt the prize was almost won, and said something about seeing whole families, including old ladies from Leicester dressed in City blue, made him emotional.

Wonderful, but I don't entirely believe him. The winning line is in Ranieri's sights now. The affability of the Italian is a cloak that hides inner steel and striving.

He is 64 now and is guiding a team nobody gave even a remote chance of staying up, never mind winning the league at the start of his tenure last summer. Sixty-four, and almost a decade on from the time Jose Mourinho sneered at him when they were rivals in Serie A.

"Ranieri's old, and he hasn't won anything," was one of the kinder put-downs Mourinho said to the press.

And today? From his couch, temporarily unemployed, Mourinho might resent watching Leicester home in on the title that Chelsea won last year, and had lost well before he was fired before Christmas.

So now, older than old, Ranieri can have his say when (make that if) the trophy is presented at the King Power.

And if the wily Italian fox is holding back the satisfaction of where he and his team stand right now, the players are finding it difficult to dodge the feeling that the world is rooting for them.

"It's hard not to feel it," said the skipper Wes Morgan this weekend. "It's the fact that we shouldn't be there. It's the underdog story."

Morgan is aged 32, and today represents his 600th career game.

The vast majority of them, until Leicester was promoted in 2014, were spent toiling in the lower leagues with Kidderminster Harriers and his home city club Nottingham Forest.

The Jamaican has played every minute of the Premier League season so far. I somehow doubt that Andy Carroll is going to get a hat-trick of goals in the air, the way he bullied Arsenal last week - Morgan and Huth are well above 1.85m and weigh around 90kg each.

Payet might conjure the ball up, over or around them, but the battering-ram approach is unlikely to do so.

Ranieri will know every threat. The players know their gaffer to be a joker on the outside, and a pretty serious boss when the time comes.

He didn't put the teamwork, based on genuine friendship among the players, into the squad. He inherited it from Nigel Pearson, who was sacked not for football reasons but for the indiscipline of a few players when Leicester were in Bangkok, the home of their owner, last summer.

There was a time under Pearson that the Foxes were fighting for Premiership survival, and won their way out of that black hole through sheer tenacity.

Everyone knows how Vardy was plucked out of non-league football by Leicester. And how Mahrez was bought for a pittance from French football.

Ranieri has left well alone the spirit and togetherness he found on his first training session before the season began. He gave them targets - 40 points to avoid relegation, then pizza for the entire squad if they could keep a clean sheet.

The gung-ho element has changed mid-season. Leicester now are hard to break down, reliant on counter-attacks, and have kept 11 of those clean sheets in the last 15 games. That's a lot of pizza.

They have also been unchanged for 11 of the last 13 games, and will probably start off the same way today.

"It is incredible," says West Ham manager Slaven Bilic. "People recognise that we are having a good season - but what Leicester have done puts our success a little bit in the shade."

Bilic need not feel bad about that, though Chelsea, Arsenal, Liverpool and the two Manchester teams probably should. They have all been run to ground by Leicester, and only Tottenham Hotspur, who do not play until tomorrow, have any chance of catching the Foxes.

The title is - almost - in the pocket.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 17, 2016, with the headline 'Wily old Italian fox can't deny title's proximity'. Print Edition | Subscribe