Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri said he was still refusing to look at the English Premier League table, despite his team re-establishing a five-point lead by beating Newcastle United 1-0 on Monday.
Shinji Okazaki’s stunning 25th-minute overhead-kick gave Leicester a hard-earned 1-0 win at the King Power Stadium and left them needing 20 points from their final eight games to complete one of the most improbable title triumphs in the history of European soccer, but while teams such as Arsenal and Manchester City continue to flounder in their slipstream, Ranieri was insistent that neither he nor his players are allowing themselves to think about the title.
“I don’t look at the table. I look at the next match — Crystal Palace,” Ranieri said at his post-match press conference. “It’s difficult. We want to enjoy, we want to continue. Of course our fans are dreaming, are so proud of us. We must continue.”
“Never we speak about the title. Every time we speak about our performance, how we enjoy the football and helping our teammates,” he said. “I’m very proud when I say everyone helps each other.”
Okazaki’s goal, a textbook overhead-kick from Jamie Vardy’s knock-down, took the Japan striker’s tally to six goals for the campaign, but Ranieri made a point of praising his all-round contribution.
“I’m not pleased now because he scored a goal — I’m so pleased with Shinji because he’s part of the team and he works so hard every time,” he said. “He scored a goal tonight, but Shinji has made a fantastic job during all the season. It was a good goal, a fantastic goal.”
Leicester’s last three wins, against Norwich City, Watford and Newcastle, have all come by a 1-0 scoreline and Ranieri was heartened by the gritty attitude shown by his players.
“I know very well we played better maybe against Aston Villa or West Bromwich [Albion], but we drew both these matches,” he said. “We played well and we achieved just one point. We played our match [against Newcastle], a tough match, very concentrated and we won — three points. At this point of the season the points are important, not how you play.”
With new manager Rafael Benitez furiously orchestrating his charges from the edge of his technical area, Newcastle produced an improved display and Ranieri said that he had not been surprised by their tenacity.
“I was sure it would be this kind of match,” said the Italian, who, like Benitez, counts SSC Napoli, Valencia, Chelsea and Inter among his former clubs. “Their players showed Rafa their attitude and the Newcastle players are very good. I am sure that they will be safe.”
It was a fourth successive loss for Newcastle, but Benitez underlined the “positives” from his side’s battling display, which he identified as their “passion” and “commitment.”
He now faces a pivotal pair of fixtures against fellow strugglers, with Sunday’s derby at home to Sunderland followed by a trip to Norwich City, and he urged the supporters to throw their weight behind the team.
“We know our next game against Sunderland is a derby and it will be important for everyone, but I have a feeling the fans are really good and they are the No. 12 for the next game,” said the former Liverpool manager, who replaced the sacked Steve McClaren on Friday last week. “We have plenty of things to do, and they need to rest and work hard. I like the people, the staff, the fans and everyone is behind the club. Everything is positive, but now we have to give them what they want on the pitch.”
“The players have to play without anxiety, because then they will make more mistakes,” he added. “They have to play with great commitment, like today, but they have to use their brains, and try and play good football.”
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