Leicester City are now just 90 minutes away from not only securing the most remarkable championship triumph in the modern history of English football, but doing so with two games to spare. Improbably, Claudio Ranieri’s collection of previously unheralded players hold a seven point lead over second-placed Tottenham heading into the final three games of the season. The title, fittingly, can now be secured with a victory at the home of the club that has won more English league titles than any other, Manchester United.
Perhaps winning the title on the final day at the home of defending Premier League champions Chelsea, the club that dispensed with Ranieri 12 years ago in the belief that he couldn’t take them to the title, would be the ultimate fairytale. But the genial Italian would surely take Old Trafford on Sunday as a welcome second best, particularly with it meaning avoiding any final-day drama.
If his message throughout this season is any guide, though, Ranieri will be giving no discussion toward "when" Leicester will seal the championship. Having refused to even discuss Leicester’s prospects of landing the title until last week, the well-traveled manager is sure to be fully focused on the "if" part of Leicester winning the first top-division title in their history.
Tottenham’s draw with West Brom on Monday, a day after Leicester brushed aside Swansea City, 4-0, has provided breathing room to Leicester, who this time last year were embarking on a run of seven wins from their final nine matches to stave off relegation. Now just three points are required to make sure that the Premier League trophy heads to the King Power Stadium. A draw would be good enough on Sunday if Tottenham fail to win at Chelsea the following day, while even a defeat would do if Tottenham also lose.
Yet, while the blue and white ribbons may be being readied to hang around the trophy, those in the dressing room are not taking anything for granted.
"Nowadays we are like: 'It’s not done yet because Tottenham are very close to us. We have to keep going and focus on every game because it is difficult. It is not done yet,'" Riyad Mahrez, who on Sunday was named the PFA Player of the Year, told The Telegraph this week.
Such caution is understandable. With trips to Manchester United and Chelsea, along with a home match in between against Everton, three points is not guaranteed. The first match of that sequence promises to be the most difficult.
Manchester United may have fallen some way from the side that won the last of their 13 Premier League titles under Sir Alex Ferguson in 2013, but they are entering the final straight of the season in a rich vein of form. Louis van Gaal’s side have won four straight matches in all competitions, a run that has taken them through to the FA Cup final and to within striking distance of the top four.
While there were wild celebrations after Anthony Martial scored an injury-time winner in a thrilling FA Cup semifinal with Everton at Wembley on Saturday, at least from the club’s point of view, securing a Champions League place is of far more importance. And Van Gaal’s job, despite an upcoming FA Cup final, could yet depend on it.
The good news for the Dutchman is that they now have a very realistic chance of getting into the top four. While they will go into Sunday’s match at Leicester five points adrift of Arsenal and Manchester City in third and fourth place, respectively, they still have a game in hand. Their cause is further helped by the fact that Manchester City and Arsenal will face off with each other in the penultimate week of the season. A winner in that match coupled with Manchester United winning their remaining four games would mean Van Gaal’s side sneaking into the top four. It could also mean making Leicester at least wait a little longer to etch the final line of their fairytale.
Prediction: Jamie Vardy will again be missing for Leicester through suspension, a significant blow given his pace on the counter led to his goal in the 1-1 draw at home to Manchester United last November. Still, Ranieri’s side coped well with Vardy’s absence last week, when replacement Leonardo Ulloa scored twice and they should benefit from their opponents needing to win the game. But with United having conceded just once in their last three games, both teams may have to accept a stalemate.
Predicted score: Manchester United 1-1 Leicester City
Kickoff time: Sunday, 9:05 a.m. EDT