Leicester City vs West Bromwich Albion: World focuses on league upstarts but all Claudio Ranieri wants is to win tonight

Global attention cannot shake experienced manager from taking one game at a time – starting at home to West Brom

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The Independent Football

Hard as Claudio Ranieri tries, there is no diverting the gaze from Leicester City ahead of tonight’s engagement with West Bromwich Albion. Ranieri fielded questions from, among others, a Greek journalist dispatched from Athens to try to make sense of a success story involving a coach who lasted only four matches in charge of Greece, and managed to lose to the Faroe Islands.

There was also a reporter from the United States seeking an audience, Sports Illustrated’s “soccer” correspondent no less. Grant Wahl’s first job will be to inform his readers that Leicester is not pronounced “Lie-sester”.   

Ranieri gives the impression he is managing one of the great football yarns of the Premier League era in his slippers, attending to team matters after he has taken the dog for a walk. Sunday was spent with his family. After a spot of light training in the morning, he had lunch at a local restaurant, then watched a recording of West Bromwich’s 3-2 victory over Crystal Palace and a rerun of Leicester’s last-gasp win against Norwich. Pointedly, he claims he paid no attention to Arsenal’s unravelling at Old Trafford. “I didn’t watch. It’s always important what we are doing, not the others.”

A month ago, before the victory over Manchester City, Ranieri’s preparations included a wander round Leicester’s fabled outdoor market, as if he were more interested in the price of cauliflowers than blowing away City’s back four. There is, he says, no point dreaming about winning the title. The only match that matters is the next one. And yes, he has huge respect for Tony Pulis and the organisation he has brought to tonight’s opponents. 

Ranieri knows well enough the unreality of the spot Leicester find themselves in. He recognises that the game might never deliver this opportunity again, that providence has stuck a pin in the football map and come up with Leicester as the season’s romantic lead. “I told to my players one or two months ago. I say, ‘OK, now we are safe but this is a crazy league.’ Nobody can believe Leicester are top of the league. 

“Look, our job is done. We wanted to be safe. Now there is something new to achieve, a satisfaction to try to do something exceptional without pressure. Try to enjoy it. I’m positive. We know this season is not true for us. Next season will be the real season for us, a true league for Leicester.” 

Leicester felt the pinch of real life on Saturday when they laboured against a team they were expected to mulch. Against a stronger side than Norwich, Leonardo Ulloa’s last-minute intervention might not have been enough. 

The struggle against Norwich is an example of the danger Ranieri seeks to protect his players from. A glance at the fixtures reveals a list of opponents that, prima facie at least, are beatable. Leicester are done with the top four. Only Manchester United and Chelsea remain of the Premier League’s exotic if erratic brands, but not before Leicester have negotiated – in date order after West Bromwich – Watford, Newcastle, Crystal Palace, Southampton, Sunderland, West Ham and Swansea City.  

To look that far ahead is to eat the pudding before the soup. “We have to play our football,” Ranieri said. “We are Leicester, we have to try our best. We have to beat West Brom because that is a very difficult match. We are thinking only about what we are doing well, and what we are doing badly. That is our focus.”

Even if we allow Ranieri his “game at a time” deflections, that does not stop the rest of us talking. And Leicester’s players would have to relocate to the moon to avoid the chatter bubbling around a story that has touched the other side of the Atlantic as well as Europe’s distant perimeters. 

What Ranieri, 64, is doing, of course, is bringing his experience to bear in an environment where his is the name most widely known. There are no super-egos in this team of recycled talents, no Francesco Tottis, no Daniele De Rossis, no Adrian Mutus or Marcel Desaillys. The players talk of the best working experience they have known, and credit Ranieri with leaving well alone.

He talks about taking Leicester into annual contention for European places, into a space where the kind of attention they are getting now is commonplace. He is asking the players to mature into that “big club” mentality, if they want to normalise what has been a freak eruption. But first he wants to beat West Bromwich.

“The players must grow up with the pressure. For us it is not important to win the title. We want to improve our performance match after match. I talk about Leicester wanting to grow in the next three or four years to compete at this level. To be at the top, I don’t know, but between the battle for Europa League and Champions League. 

“Now we making new experiences, the pressure, expectation, speculation, Barcelona, Real Madrid, this and that. This is good. Four or five months ago nobody was talking about Leicester so this is good. You have to get used to it. Every day at the top there is something new but you have to play with the same concentration, and leave out all the speculation. I’m building a team for the future. If I see there is somebody who can’t handle this pressure then he is not with me.”