Leicester City manager Claudio Ranieri has backed his players to manage the ever-increasing pressure generated by their Premier League title tilt, starting with Saturday’s visit of Norwich City.
Ranieri’s men were beaten 2-1 by title rivals Arsenal last time out and were then handed a week off as they build up to what the Italian feels is a defining period in their season, with Leicester taking advantage of having been knocked out of the FA Cup to regroup.
After Norwich’s trip to the King Power Stadium, Leicester face West Brom, Watford, Newcastle United and Crystal Palace before the international break as the leaders, who are two points clear of nearest rivals Tottenham and Arsenal, prepare themselves for the run-in.
And, asked whether his side were feeling the weight of expectation, Ranieri told reporters: “I didn’t see that. Because the training is the same and the mentality is very good. They are free spirits.
“We have to manage [the pressure] and have the confidence to manage this pressure. It’s okay. It’s the first time. Maybe next season, it could be better and in two seasons, better again.
“I told my players that it will be a big battle on Saturday. It will be harder than against Arsenal.
“I want to see my players concentrated and angry because of the way we lost in the last minute [at Arsenal]. We want to grow and stay at a high level. Now, we have to manage the pressure and have the confidence. It’s new for us.
“The next five matches for us, I believe they can be key in our season.”
Ranieri has Jeffrey Schlupp – who scored what proved to be the winner when Leicester beat Norwich 2-1 in October – back fit and could hand January signing Daniel Amartey a debut due to Danny Simpson’s suspension.
Norwich, meanwhile, have won just once in the Premier League since the turn of the year and threw away a two-goal lead to draw against West Ham at Carrow Road last time out. Alex Neil’s side sit fourth bottom, out of the relegation places on goal difference alone.
Amid unrest from some sections of the Norwich support, Neil brushed off the criticism, telling the Eastern Daily Press: “My responsibility is to win games and at the moment we are not doing that.
“Whatever way you want to cut it, people want to win. You can play the worst game ever but if you find a way to win they are quite happy. They might still moan about the performance but that is the nature of football.
“If you lose when you might play really, really well it makes no difference. The one thing about football is a manager will always get criticised at every club, it doesn’t matter whether you are doing well or not.
“Someone is always not going to be happy and people are entitled to their opinion. I have to fix it and so do the players because if they want to be seen as Premier League players they have to win games at this level.”
Key Opta stats:
– Norwich City have won just one and lost nine of their last 12 Premier League away games.
– Only Riyad Mahrez (24) has been involved in more Premier League goals (scored and assisted) than Jamie Vardy (22) this season.
– Mahrez and Vardy (33) have scored more Premier League goals between them this season than the whole Norwich City team (30).
– Norwich have gone 13 Premier League games on the road without a clean sheet.
– Leicester City have the best shot conversion rate in the Premier League, scoring with 18.2 per cent of their shots