Claudio Ranieri the unlikely instigator of mind games

Foxes boss names Spurs as favourites and Arsenal old boy calls for Wenger’s head

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has been criticised for not adding to his squad by former players. It has now been 12 years since he won the English Premier League title with the London club. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters.

Arsenal manager Arsène Wenger has been criticised for not adding to his squad by former players. It has now been 12 years since he won the English Premier League title with the London club. Photograph: Phil Noble/Reuters.

 

As Claudio Ranieri contemplated the next stage of the title race, the manager of the most implausible challengers in the English Premier League era made an observation that would have immediately been classified as mind games were it Alex Ferguson in this position, or José Mourinho, or even Arsène Wenger back in the days when no one could have imagined there would be a queue of former Arsenal players debating whether he should be fired.

Ranieri picked out Tottenham Hotspur, who are two points off the top, as the favourites and, possibly crossing his fingers behind his table, the Leicester City manager also nominated Arsenal as the most likely team to be parading the trophy in May.

Even, he was asked, after their shortcomings were painfully exposed at the weekend? “Yes, of course,” he continued, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. “They have players who can win every game.”

Swarm of criticism

Paul Merson

The scrutiny on Wenger has been there for some time but what he is discovering now is it is especially fierce when Tottenham, for so long synonymous with soft-centre issues of their own, are suddenly displaying the right balance of skill, mental strength and professional structure to hold their nerve during the period when potential champions have to be resilient and strong mentally.

Leading scorers

Hart Lane

Spurs have won their past six league fixtures and if they continue that run at Upton Park, where West Ham have not lost since August, it will be the first time they have recorded seven consecutive league victories since their FA Cup-winning 1966/’67 season, when the team managed by Bill Nicholson and featuring Jimmy Greaves, Dave Mackay and Alan Gilzean won eight in succession.

Spurs have not been beaten in an away game since the opening day of the season and their strength of personality can be gauged by the fact that the 2-1 defeat of Swansea City on Sunday means they have taken 17 points from losing positions, more than any other team in the league.

For most of the season, Leicester have been the most prodigious comeback artists in the division. Tottenham have now overtaken them and that, more than anything, demonstrates the difference in mentality between the two sides at the top and the chasing group.

Leicester’s togetherness is being examined given that for the first time this season they are missing N’Golo Kante, whose hamstring injury has ruled him out of the game at home against West Brom tonight and the trip to Watford on Saturday. Andy King, his replacement, is a survivor from the club’s League One days – this week seven years ago he was preparing for a double-header against Stockport County and Cheltenham Town – but Kante’s prominence this season makes it a potentially damaging setback. No other player in the top division has made more tackles or interceptions.

All the same, Ranieri was exuding a quiet air of confidence, noting he was quite happy for his players to talk about winning the league and casually letting it be known he had not bothered watching the Spurs or Arsenal games. Leicester, he mused, looked a good bet to avoid relegation. “Our job is done,” he said. “We wanted to be safe. Now there is something new if we think match by match.”

Previous occasion

Liverpool

“We have the talent to recover the points we lost against Leicester and Spurs,” Pablo Zabaleta, the City defender, said. “They won their games this weekend and they are two good teams. And we cannot forget Arsenal. It’s going to be very tough. Everything is very tight at the top of the table. We just need to be confident, have belief and try to keep the momentum going.”

It is the same for Leicester and Spurs whereas, for Arsenal, the question is of their nerve and, specifically, do they have the mental fortitude to become champions? Wenger’s team have won only three out of their last 10 games in all competitions, failing to score in five of them.

Press releases

“If Man City don’t win the league and Tottenham or Leicester do, Arsène Wenger has to go,” he said. “If Leicester or Tottenham win the league after he said they [Arsenal] didn’t need any players, I don’t see how he can keep his job.” Guardian Service

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