UNITED Kingdom, April 4 – Asked whether, having watched his Leicester City team move seven points clear at the Premier League summit, he was worried they might choke, manager Claudio Ranieri responded: “What is ‘choke’?”
The question was more a reflection of his imperfect English than a display of brazenness, but after having the word explained to him, the 64-year-old Italian put his hand around his own throat and mimicked a throttling noise.
When the laughter of those present in the King Power Stadium press room following Sunday’s 1-0 victory over Southampton had subsided, Ranieri smiled and said: “No, no, no. I am very calm.”
Leicester’s win, courtesy of captain Wes Morgan’s 38th-minute header, left them requiring 12 points from their last six games to complete one of the most improbable title triumphs in football history.
But while the city of Leicester, in central England, is abuzz with excitement, Ranieri is determined not to let the title fervour get the better of either him or his players.
“(The fans) must believe, they must be happy for this season, but we must stay with our feet on the ground,” he said.
“Because if you remember our last matches, all the matches are very, very tough, very difficult. Imagine Sunderland next Sunday, what (will) happen? Another battle. And then we must be focused.”
The nervy win over Southampton was Leicester’s fifth 1-0 success in six matches and they are ticking off their remaining games with the dead-eyed professionalism of seasoned trophy-winners.
Leicester’s approach, Ranieri joked, has become “more Italian” as the season has worn on.
The final whistle brought a giddy end to a giddy day, which had started with home fans collecting free bottles of beer and doughnuts laid on by the club’s Thai chairman Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha in celebration of his birthday on Monday.
Vichai was present to see his team’s latest success and Ranieri revealed afterwards that he had been serenaded by the players.
“The chairman is happy,” he said. “We sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him in the dressing room before the match and I ask the players for a good present for him: three points.”
– ‘Big, big, big mistake’ –
Ranieri also praised Morgan, the hulking 32-year-old centre-back, who registered his first goal since last May after shrugging off a cold that he had picked up on international duty with Jamaica.
“He come back just Friday,” Ranieri said. “He was cold, he was tired, but he’s a strong man. He’s a good example for everybody.”
Morgan’s goal followed a spell of Southampton pressure that had included a strong penalty shout for handball after Sadio Mane’s goal-bound shot struck Danny Simpson on the forearm.
In the second half, substitute Charlie Austin drove the ball against Robert Huth’s hand, but on both occasions referee Michael Oliver allowed play to continue, much to beaten manager Ronald Koeman’s annoyance.
“It’s a key moment in the game because the chance of Mane is handball on his arm. If not, the ball goes in,” said the Dutchman, whose side fell four points off the Europa League places.
“It’s a penalty and it’s a red card. That makes the game totally different. The second is the cross of Charlie Austin. Defending by handball.
“I saw yesterday (Saturday) a penalty for Newcastle (for a handball by Norwich City’s Gary O’Neil). Is that different? That is what I ask. If it’s not a penalty, don’t give penalties for those kind of decisions.
“Maybe tonight, if he (Oliver) stays home with his family (and watches the highlights), he’ll realise that he did a big, big, big mistake today.”
On Leicester, he said: “I hope that they will win because they deserve to win the title.
“If they continue with a little bit of luck with decisions of referees, then for sure they will win it!
“But I don’t say that they win the title by the referees. If they win it, it will be because they have had a fantastic season.”