It is a scenario surely nobody would have predicted last August. When Manchester City and Leicester City square off at the Etihad on Saturday lunchtime, a top spot in the Premier League and the chance to land a major blow in the title race will be on the line.
For Manchester City, of course, a position near the top of the table is no surprise. The club has received huge financial investment in recent years and won two of the last four Premier League titles. But the fact that they are currently second to Leicester City represents the most unlikely story in Premier League history. Bottom of the table a year ago, Leicester now sit three points clear at the summit.
With only 14 matches now remaining, the prospect of Leicester landing the most unlikely of titles is becoming increasingly real. They have already come through one tough period of fixtures that many predicted would prove their undoing. And manager Claudio Ranieri can no longer claim that his side are merely striving to ensure there is no danger of relegation. Yet the longtime Italian coach is still refusing to be drawn into stating that Leicester can become champions.
“I know what you try to do,” Ranieri said with a laugh during his pre-match press conference. “You are bad. I'd like to say 'Yes we can,' but I am not [President] Obama so it is difficult to do this.
“All the people understand, the fans of other teams too, that we are doing something extraordinary so far. The energy from other fans is positive and good. I don't know what happens in the future, but to our own fans we can give a fantastic gift.”
If Leicester can come through the next two games, even Ranieri may begin to talk up their chances. After taking on Manchester City, Leicester will face fourth-placed Arsenal, one of only two teams to beat the Foxes in the Premier League this season. Still, the other victors over Leicester, Liverpool, were vanquished at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday thanks to a double from Premier League top scorer Jamie Vardy.
For Manchester City, Saturday’s showdown presents a chance to move level on points at the top and flex their muscles in what has been an unpredictable, wide-open title race. City have so far been inconsistent, not helped by injuries to key players. Against Leicester they will again be without influential captain Vincent Kompany, fellow center-back Eliaquim Mangala, as well as Kevin de Bruyne, Wilfried Bony, Jesus Navas and Samir Nasri.
While Manchester City’s immense resources mean they will still be able to field a strong team on Saturday, such an injury list would likely cripple a much thinner squad at Leicester.
“They have a very good squad with not many players injured,” manager Manuel Pellegrini said, according to Manchester City’s official website. “They play with the same team every week. They have less games than other teams but I think the merit of the squad is very important.
“In football, not only finances make the difference—of course you must buy players to win the title but I always said the big teams but every year there’s a surprise. Leicester are all thinking and doing the same thing at right moment. That can equalize the finances.”
A goal from Sergio Agüero gave Manchester City a narrow win over relegation-strugglers Sunderland. On Tuesday, in what was the first match since it was confirmed that Pep Guardiola will replace Pellegrini at the end of the season.
Prediction: When the sides met at the King Power Stadium at the end of December, Ranieri altered from his usual 4-4-2, reinforcing the midfield and leaving Vardy alone up front. It helped grind out a goalless draw, but stifled much of Leicester’s threat on the counter attack. He now faces a big decision over how to approach Saturday’s mammoth contest. If given attacking support, Vardy certainly has the ability to torment what has been a suspect Manchester City central defensive partnership of Nicolás Otamendi and Martin Demichelis. But the temptation to be cautious may be too tempting to resist for Ranieri. And the move could backfire, with Agüero’s fleet of foot potentially proving too much to handle for Leicester.
Predicted score: Manchester City 2-1 Leicester City
Match time: 7:45 a.m. EST
TV channel: NBCSN
Live stream: NBC Sports Live Extra