UNITED KINGDOM, February 5 – Manchester City’s home supporters will have their first opportunity to begin a drawn out farewell to Manual Pellegrini when their team face Leicester in a contest that will play a major role in deciding the Premier League title race.
Until Monday’s announcement that City boss Pellegrini will be replaced by Bayern Munich’s Pep Guardiola at the end of the season, it appeared this game would be all about first place in the table and the displays of City’s Sergio Aguero and Leicester’s Jamie Vardy, two of the division’s most in-form stars.
But Pellegrini, who received a rapturous response from City supporters during Tuesday’s victory at Sunderland, looks sure to dominate proceedings on Saturday when he appears before his home crowd for the first time since his departure was confirmed.
There had been speculation that City’s decision not to renew Pellegrini’s contract when it expires later this year might unsettle a team still pushing for honours on four fronts.
But City’s assured performance at Sunderland suggested otherwise and that ability to concentrate on the game ahead, rather than focusing too far into the future, is what will see them through the campaign according to French defender Gael Clichy.
“We need to make ourselves hard to beat and that’s what we did,” Clichy said.
“Three points are three points – what we’re trying to do is take every game as it comes and see how it goes.
“When you come to somewhere like Sunderland and keep a clean sheet and win it’s really satisfying. We have Leicester on Saturday so let’s make it count and get those three points.”
– Shock leaders –
While all eyes on the field will be on Aguero and Vardy, Pellegrini must decide whether another exciting forward, Nigerian youngster Kelechi Iheanacho, keeps his place after an FA Cup hat-trick at Aston Villa last week and a rare start against Sunderland.
Aguero suffered an injury to his calf in scoring the winning goal at Sunderland, but he is expected to be fit, while midfielder Fabian Delph is close to a return from a minor calf injury of his own.
Despite their three-point lead over City at the top and Tuesday’s impressive victory against Liverpool, Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri still refuses to acknowledge his shock leaders are serious title contenders.
The Italian claims a top-four finish would still be “amazing” despite a 10-point lead over fifth-placed Manchester United and Ranieri is adamant he will not talk up Leicester’s chances of finishing top despite the growing belief among their supporters.
“I’d like to say yes we can but I am not Barack Obama,'” joked Ranieri. It is difficult for me to say this. If I maintain the suspense it is much better.
“My players are very intelligent in every situation. Maybe everybody believes in something special and they are working for something special. This is important.”
“If we arrive fourth and go in Champions League, it is unbelievable, amazing. I think all the people understand we are doing something extraordinary so far.
What happens in the future, I don’t know, but already we gave a very good gift to our fans. What happened this season is not real.”
Ranieri must decide whether Daniel Amartey, his January signing from FC Copenhagen, is ready for a first appearance in the match-day squad, but the starting line-up is likely to remain unchanged from the victory over Liverpool.
Vardy scored twice, including a goal-of-the-season contender, against the Reds, while Riyad Mahrez underlined his return to form with an eye-catching display, and Ranieri believes his players have learned how to beat the best during their incredible season.
“I want the intelligent men,” said Ranieri. “You have intelligent men, you can improve the players.
“You can be a fantastic player but a stupid man, and you cannot improve. I have very intelligent players.”