Ahead of Sunday's visit to Leicester City, we got the lowdown on the Foxes from Leicester Mercury reporter Rob Tanner.
How do you even begin to sum up this season at Leicester?
It’s incredible. Nobody could have expected this. Although in the camp they might say ‘Yeah, we knew we were a good team,’ they never thought for a second they could produce a season like this. They were written off as relegation candidates – the odds on them actually winning the title were 5,000-1, which is exactly the same as finding Elvis Presley alive. That’s how much of a long shot they were. It’s just been astonishing, to be honest.
What’s the atmosphere like in Leicester at the moment?
I think what summed it up best was after the win at Everton, in December, there was a fan that called into the BBC's 606 show and he was in floods of tears down the phone, and I think that’s how a lot of Leicester fans feel at the moment. They’ve had a couple of trophies in the Martin O’Neill era, but they’ve never won anything other than that. It’s been a constant struggle to get up into the top-flight and stay there. I think twice in their history – in the '20s and '60s – they had a chance of winning the title and they couldn’t get over the line. So this is only the third time in the club’s history that they’ve been in a position like this. I think the fans are stunned and delighted in equal measure really.
How are the team coping with the pressure?
That will be the big question about them over the last seven games is can they hold their nerve? But up to now I’ve seen no evidence of nerves or the pressure getting to them.
One of Claudio Ranieri's fantastic tactics is the way he relives pressure on his players, and he does it using humour. A classic example was, before the Watford game Danny Drinkwater had told us that Ranieri used an imaginary bell to get the attention of the players. So if he thought they weren’t concentrating on what he was saying he used to stand in the room, hold this imaginary bell and go ‘Diddly dee, diddly dong” to get their attention. The players would stop, look at him and laugh, but he’d have their attention. When they were going to Watford they were on the team coach and they knew Arsenal and Spurs had drawn earlier in the day, so they knew it was a fantastic opportunity and there was a bit of nerves and tension on the bus. I spoke to Jamie Vardy afterwards and he said they were on the bus and Jeff Stelling came on the TV screen and did a ‘diddly dee, diddly dong’ impression of Ranieri and all the lads started laughing and it just relieved all the pressure.
How would you describe their style of play and how are they playing right now?
Recently, they’ve changed a bit. At the start of the season they were outscoring teams, but were a bit susceptible at the back. They were very open. They’ve always been a counter-attacking side – they like to let teams come onto them and there’s only been a handful of games where they’ve had more possession than the opposition. They like to let the opposition have the ball, then they hunt it and pick it off. N’Golo Kanté is brilliant at that. He’ll hunt the ball, win it, then break when the opposition are out of position. Recently, though, they’ve won four of their last five 1-0, because they’ve been able to be defensively more resolute, so they have evolved over the season. At the moment they’ve got that champions trait of being able to grind out 1-0 victories.
Who are the key players in the side at the moment?
I know Vardy and Mahrez have taken all the headlines, but they are very much a unit and a team. They all play valuable roles. But, obviously, the key men in this final run will be Vardy and Mahrez. They have been all season. They’re the goalscorers, they’re the creative sparks, they’re the ones who can sneak a tight game. Vardy’s just had a phenomenal few days with England and hopefully that means he’ll be back for Sunday full of confidence. I have to say as well N’Golo Kanté. The kid is phenomenal. He looks 12-years-old. There’s a fantastic story about when he first joined the club – he was a £5.6m signing from Caen and was in the car park at the training ground looking a bit lost and one of the security guards walked over and asked him if he was waiting for his parents to pick him up, because he thought he was one of the academy kids. He’s a real competitor on the pitch. You look at the number of tackles he makes and how many are given as fouls and there’s very few – he’s very clean when he wins the ball back.
How do you see the game going?
Southampton have been in good form lately, so it’s going to be a tough one. It’s potentially one of the toughest of the last seven. They’ll be well organised. It was a tough game down at St Mary’s, and physically in the first half they were bullied down at Southampton and couldn’t match them at set-pieces. So, as long as they can defend set-pieces and stand up to the physicality of it all, I think if Vardy’s on song they can sneak a win and that will keep the momentum going.
Do you think they are they going to win the title?
I do now. Up until the win at Man City I thought ‘No, surely not.’ Then I saw them at Man City and they dismantled them and I thought ‘They look like champions here,’ and since then the way they’ve been going about their business I think they can do it, absolutely. These next four games are really important ones, because their last three are Man United away, Everton at home and Chelsea away. I think if they come through these four games in good shape they can go on.