LONDON, United Kingdom, Feb 25 – Eden Hazard has warned Chelsea not to lose their focus as the runaway Premier League leaders approach the final furlong in the title race, while crisis-torn champions Leicester face up to life without sacked boss Claudio Ranieri.
Antonio Conte’s side are eight points clear at the top with just 13 games remaining and they have a golden opportunity to extend that lead when they host lowly Swansea on Saturday.
Second placed Manchester City are not in action this weekend because their derby against Manchester United was postponed due to their rivals’ League Cup final showdown with Southampton on Sunday.
That gives the Blues a chance to pull clear against a Swansea side who will be heavy underdogs despite their impressive rise out of the relegation zone under the management of former Chelsea assistant coach Paul Clement.
However, Chelsea showed a rare sign of vulnerability in a 1-1 draw at Burnley in their previous league match and Belgium playmaker Hazard insists his team can take nothing for granted as they look to regain the title.
“We just need to keep the same concentration. It’s more difficult to play away because of the fans, but we are ready, we are professional. We can deal with the pressure. Everything is going good,” Hazard said.
“We know if we want to be champions, in our home stadium we have to win most of our games.
“We can’t say all 19 because we have already lost to Liverpool, but we have to win 16 to 17 because it is our place and we are ready to deliver.”
On Monday, Leicester will start the post Ranieri era as the troubled champions host Liverpool in their first match since the Italian’s shock dismissal.
Ranieri was brutally axed on Thursday, just nine months after Leicester’s incredible title triumph, because the club’s Thai owners feared relegation was an increasingly realistic prospect.
The Foxes have lost their last five league games without scoring a single goal, plunging them to with one point of the relegation zone less than a year after the fairytale success that captivated the world.
A 2-1 midweek Champions League last 16 first leg loss in Sevilla, a defeat that could have been much heavier, was the last straw amid growing talk of player unrest at Ranieri’s tactical tinkering.
– Sympathy –
“It was never our expectation that the extraordinary feats of last season should be replicated this season. Indeed, survival in the Premier League was our first and only target at the start of the campaign,” Leicester vice-chairman Aiyawatt Srivaddhanaprabha said.
“But we are now faced with a fight to reach that objective and feel a change is necessary to maximise the opportunity presented by the final 13 games.”
Assistant manager Craig Shakespeare and Mike Stowell have taken caretaker charge ahead of Monday’s clash at the King Power Stadium.
Liverpool can’t afford any sympathy for Leicester’s plight as they aim for a win that would take them back into the top four.
Jurgen Klopp’s fifth placed team ended a run of five games without a win by beating Tottenham and Reds midfielder Adam Lallana, who signed a new contract this week, is confident of a strong finish to the season.
“We have a world-class manager and coaching staff and because it’s Liverpool there is that added X-factor of the supporters and what success would mean to them when we achieve it here,” Lallana said.
Third placed Tottenham must beat Stoke at White Hart Lane on Sunday to keep alive their slender hopes of overhauling Chelsea.
Mauricio Pochettino’s side are 10 points adrift of their London rivals after winning only one of their last four league matches.
“When we start a game, if you only watch 50 seconds, you don’t need to be a genius to know we may struggle and have some problems in that game,” Pochettino grumbled.
“The problem is when you start not in a good way, it’s too difficult to change that perception and then you give a very good signal to the opponent that you are not focused on the game.”
Sunderland manager David Moyes takes his bottom of the table side back to his old club Everton, while second bottom Crystal Palace face a crucial clash with fellow strugglers Middlesbrough.
Fixtures (6pm unless stated)
Chelsea v Swansea, Crystal Palace v Middlesbrough, Everton v Sunderland, Hull v Burnley, Watford v West Ham (8:30pm), West Brom v Bournemouth
Tottenham v Stoke (4:30pm)
Leicester v Liverpool (11pm)