So now it begins for Leicester City. The sleepless nights, the anguish over dropped points and the poring over the fixture list for potential wins, draws and defeats.
Claudio Ranieri’s league leaders turned on the style against West Bromwich Albion and displayed title-winning grit, but in the final reckoning, they only emerged from a pulsating Midlands derby with one point after goals from Salomon Rondon and Craig Gardner proved enough to claim a draw for Tony Pulis’s team.
As impressive as they were, Leicester have now collected just four points from their last three league outings and second-placed Tottenham Hotspur can now claim top spot with a victory at West Ham United tonight.
Leicester may have fought until the end, but they have now tasted the frustration of being denied what they so desperately wanted and they will travel to Watford on Saturday feeling the heat for the first time this season.
Leicester arrived at this fixture having gone well past the point of being regarded as some early season pretenders. Ranieri’s players faced Albion with victories against Chelsea, Manchester City, Liverpool and Tottenham to their name in the Premier League this season, so for all of their canny manager’s attempts to play down his team’s prospects, actions speak louder than words – and Leicester have delivered some pretty resounding statements on the pitch since last August.
But no title is won without a test of nerve and the first jitters are often felt in March, when the finishing post begins to appear on the horizon. No champions are immune from the pressures of the run-in.
Sir Alex Ferguson’s great Manchester United teams succeeded and failed after hitting turbulence at this stage of the season, while even Arsène Wenger’s Invincibles had to survive late-season wobbles before claiming the championship without suffering a defeat in 2004.
Leicester proved their mettle magnificently with an 89th-minute winner by Leonardo Ulloa in a tense 1-0 victory at home to Norwich at the weekend, but Albion, with local pride at stake, were always likely to make life just as tough as Alex Reid’s team.
So, how would Leicester cope? Only Robert Huth, who won two Premier League titles with Chelsea, can show off his medals in the Foxes’ dressing room, but perhaps Leicester’s innocence, and even naivety, could be their strength rather than their weakness. It is nights like this which offer clues, however, as to their staying power and whether they really are equipped to navigate the bumps in the road.
They certainly started well enough, pushing Albion back in the early stages and attempting to unsettle a makeshift defence consisting of four centre-halves – two of whom were filling in at full-back.
Riyad Mahrez was his usual testing and probing self down the right, while Marc Albrighton offered a more direct threat down the left.
But chances were limited. Andy King, in for the injured N’Golo Kanté, hooked an effort over on 10 minutes before Rondon gave the visitors the lead a minute later.
It was a fine goal by the Venezuelan, who was released by Darren Fletcher’s defence-splitting pass before outmuscling the imposing Huth and shooting past goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel.
Leicester were now facing that test of nerve which was always going to come at some point – but rather than shrink and become cowed by the pressure, they went on the front foot.
Mahrez continued to look for opportunities and Jamie Vardy saw Ben Foster save well from a header from the Algerian’s cross.
Fletcher attempted to urge Albion forward, but Leicester kept on pressing and their reward came on 31 minutes when Danny Drinkwater’s deflected shot from 25 yards hauled them level. Martin Olsson’s deflection proved decisive, though, with the ball looping high over the helpless Foster before dropping into the net.
The goal lifted Leicester and Vardy almost put them ahead on 37 minutes when he headed Drinkwater’s cross against the bar from close range.
But just as Albion looked set to hold out until half-time, Leicester scored again to take control of the game – and it was another goal of high quality. Albrighton’s cross from the left was met with an audacious flick by Mahrez, with the ball dropping to King, who stroked a right-foot effort into the net from 10 yards.
Having won League One and the Championship with Leicester, could that goal ultimately put him on course for a remarkable hat-trick of titles?
With Leicester eclipsing their previous record Premier League points haul with the Norwich victory – Martin O’Neill’s team in 1999-2000 amassed 55 points to finish eighth – Ranieri’s men are clearly now in virgin territory and their first-half fightback suggested they are ready to ride the wave.
But Albion were not prepared to play the fall guy for their Midlands rivals and their response in the early stages of the second half posed another challenge for the home side.
Just five minutes in, Gardner levelled the scores with a stunning free-kick which silenced all but the small quadrant inside the King Power Stadium hosting the visiting supporters.
Twenty-five yards from goal, the midfielder curled a perfect right-foot free-kick over the wall and beyond Schmeichel to ask another question of Leicester’s determination. Yet, once again, Leicester could not be accused of panicking after conceding, with their ethos seeming to be one of fortune favours the brave.
So forward they went again, first with Vardy attempting to wriggle past Craig Dawson and Gareth McAuley before going to ground in the penalty area.
Referee Mark Clattenburg ignored Leicester’s appeals, but Dawson was fortunate, having left a trailing leg for Vardy to fall over.
Moments later, Shinji Okazaki headed against the bar, following another delivery from the impressive Albrighton.
Leicester simply kept throwing everything at Foster in the Albion goal, but the England keeper denied Jeffrey Schlupp, then Vardy and then, four minutes from full-time, the buccaneering centre-half and captain, Wes Morgan.
But Leicester just could not find a way through.
So now it begins.