The very thing that everyone at Leicester City has studiously avoided looking at is now inches away and is staring them right in the face.
Before the season began—back when you could’ve gotten much better odds that Leicester would be relegated—Claudio Ranieri set his team’s seasonal target at 40 Premier League points. Ranieri was instructing his players to ride out the vicissitudes of a long, rarely fun lower-midtable season and keep focused on the everyday work that would hopefully save them from the drop. Even when Leicester came out of the gates like a rocket, Ranieri would not allow his players to overlook the 40-point mark.
Once they blew past that landmark on January 2nd, the 20th game of the campaign, Ranieri began to kick the target just a little further down the road, never lifting his head enough to steal a glance at the potential title and the end of the path. When the rest of the world was busy penciling in a plausible (if “plausible” even has any meaning when Leicester fucking City could very well win the biggest league in the world) series of results for the final third of the season that would give the Foxes the title, Ranieri concentrated on how huge it would be for his little club to qualify for the Europa League.
After they’d cemented at least a place in the Europa League, the manager had them try to guarantee themselves a Champions League place. It wasn’t until they’d finally locked up a top-four finish—just a week ago, after we’d all transitioned from the slow realization that there was a legitimate chance that Leicester could Do The Whole Shit to a clear understanding that, barring a collapse, Leicester will in fact Do The Whole Shit—that Ranieri finally admitted to his players and the public that the EPL trophy was what they were after:
With Tottenham’s draw against West Brom on Monday, there is no longer any way to hide it, anyway: the Premier League title is Leicester’s to win.
Consciously or not, this his has to alter their mindset. Ranieri’s intention behind never talking about the title had to have been as much superstition as it was keeping his players’ minds off the true enormity of what they were doing. (As Riyad Mahrez put it, when asked about if the players have felt the pressure to accomplish the improbable, “we feel something is happening in England, but we live a little in our bubble.”)
The message seems to have been, keep doing your job and let the rest take care of itself. Only now, “the rest” is all there is. One win, and they win the title. No pressure.
This weekend’s match is probably the last one Leicester can head into and feel like it’s playing with house money. The game is away to Manchester United, and while United and Old Trafford don’t mean what they once did, United are still a good enough team where a match on their home turf is a tough game for anybody. In some ways this is probably Leicester’s most difficult remaining fixture; due to that fact and the residual excitement around Tottenham’s stumble, nobody is expecting too much from the Foxes this weekend.
If Leicester don’t win on Sunday, all of that changes. Either a loss or a draw against United immediately heaps all the pressure onto Leicester’s shoulders. Then they’d have to look to their penultimate match the following weekend, their final home game of the season against Everton, and see that as their best chance to slay the dragon.
Everton sit way back in 11th place in the table, and are defensively fragile in the exact way Leicester have become so adept at punishing, but they’re nonetheless very dangerous and can, on their day, beat anyone in the league. With what is sure to be a raucous crowd behind them no matter what, and the tantalizing prospect of finally winning the trophy and doing so at home, Leicester’s players would certainly exit the tunnel with enthusiasm and energy. Should Leicester not score early, though, or maybe if they even go down a goal, the feeling that the team might be in the midst of choking away a historic title will probably seep into the minds of the players and fans. And that measured, one-game-at-a-time mindset Ranieri has so carefully nurtured all season will likely be the first thing to go.
The worst possible scenario would involve Leicester needing something from their final game. For that one, they’ll have to travel to Stamford Bridge and face Chelsea. As we’ve pointed out before, there would be no sweeter cap to what has been an all-around terrible season for the Blues than having the chance to ruin someone’s else’s. We all appreciated the heart-stopping action of last day of the 2011-12 season, but I don’t think any (non-Spurs) fan wants to see this title going down to that wire with what that would imply about Leicester’s magical run.
And so it begins Sunday afternoon, when the Leicester’s fate can be sealed, or begin its agonizing slide from celebratory to disastrous. They can head all of this off with a win in Manchester, of course. (And even in the worst case scenario, Tottenham would have to close their year with no worse than two wins and a draw from games against Chelsea, Southampton, and Newcastle—all without one of their best players.) But fall short this weekend and the abyss becomes visible. And if Leicester are forced to stare into it, they may not be able to look away.