Leicester City’s win at Manchester City – the most significant result so far in what is becoming a stunning story – means there is no hiding place for manager Claudio Ranieri’s side.
The Foxes’ richly-deserved 3-1 victory in the battle of the top two at Etihad Stadium put them five points clear at the top of the Premier League and installed them as title favourites with every bookmaker.
And it stripped away the last shield keeping Leicester under the radar, despite Ranieri’s masterpiece of expectation management this season.
Can they handle the pressure?
The manner in which Leicester came to Manchester and won so convincingly on their biggest test of the season was designed to make even the doubters believe.
It was an emphatic and mature performance that confirmed the tide of opinion is turning. Leicester are no longer viewed as plucky underdogs but as a club in position to make history.
Leicester can no longer portray themselves as being on a fantasy ride with nothing to lose at the end – there should now be disappointment if they do not win the title.
So how will Leicester handle that potent mixture of pressure and expectation?
Former Norwich City striker Chris Sutton outlined the dangers of underdogs being thrust to the front and feeling the weight of expectation.
He recalled how Norwich City let an unlikely title chance slip in the 1992-93 season when they were a point clear with only six games left.
Sutton told BBC Sport: “The longer you stay up there, and the closer you get to seeing it through, the harder it gets. We got through March and were back on the top of the table and it hit us. All of a sudden we started thinking about whether we could actually do it.
“Everywhere we went in Norwich, people would ask ‘can we win it?’ We were thinking ‘how are we still in the race?’ We started to wonder ‘what if we do win it?’
“It was a kind of pressure that was new to all of us – the manager Mike Walker and the players – and we faltered at the big moments,” he added.
“We had two crunch games before Easter against the two other teams challenging and although we beat Aston Villa we lost at home to Manchester United, who had just gone four games without a win.”
United went on to win the title and Norwich City finished third.
Leicester forward Riyad Mahrez said: “We’re just going to keep dreaming, We’re going to fight for the title and see what we can do.”
The pinch points may arrive – but there has not been a trace of evidence yet to suggest Leicester will crack.
Coping with expectations
The change in perception of Leicester City was emphasised when the title odds dropped moments after the win at Etihad Stadium and the Foxes were favourites with all major bookies.
Ranieri, playing the game he has perfected this season, was ready with the bucket of iced water, saying: “I don’t believe them. They said I was first to be sacked – but I hope one time they are right.”
The tag of bookies’ favourites is only an outside pressure and Leicester have dealt immaculately with any examination they have been presented with this season.
The questions were asked after the Boxing Day defeat at Liverpool – and yet they responded with a fine performance in a home goalless draw against Manchester City.
The FA Cup third-round loss at home to Spurs was followed by a thunderous 3-0 win at home to Stoke City – and when the biggest question of all was asked by Manuel Pellegrini’s expensively assembled squad on Saturday, the response could not have been more convincing.
‘The Tinkerman’ plays it cool
Ranieri’s message was always about reaching 40 points and safety – but such has been the transformation in Leicester’s fortunes that he is now fending off title talk.
The 64-year-old Italian is a hugely popular figure, a symbol for every neutral’s hope that Leicester can fight off the big-spending superpowers and write the final chapter to the most remarkable tale in Premier League history.
He has maintained a relaxed air throughout the season, offering his players pizza in exchange for clean sheets and deflecting pressure on to Leicester’s rivals.
Ranieri was at it again on Saturday, saying: “I don’t want to think about if we win. But we are alive and we want to fight. We know it’s a crazy league and we have to try. We enjoy it and we fight without pressure. The fans must continue to dream.”
For the man who was sacked by Greece after a home defeat by Faroe Islands in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, Ranieri will have to deal with a different type of stress as Leicester City are locked on course for one of football’s most remarkable achievements.
So can Leicester win the league?
Yes they can – and no matter where they finish there will not be enough humble pie to go around for naysayers such as myself, who predicted relegation back in August after Ranieri replaced sacked Nigel Pearson.
These were some of my words that will be eaten: “Ranieri’s appointment is, at best, left field and at worst uninspiring and unwise. A charming man but perhaps one out of time with the Premier League, having last worked there with Chelsea in 2004 and having had a chequered career since.”
Well that went well – although I was not alone. Now Leicester City are being carried along on a wave of national goodwill, with just about every neutral willing them on.
Five points clear with 13 games left is a wonderful position to be in and there is no team playing better than Leicester City in the Premier League.
It is not simply “the pinnacle of the iceberg”, as Ranieri calls lethal strike pair Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez, who are excelling. This is a complete team effort.
Wes Morgan and Robert Huth, who scored two at Etihad Stadium, present a formidable defensive barrier in front of keeper Kasper Schmeichel, while the outstanding midfielder N’Golo Kante is arguably the bargain of the season at £6m from Caen.
If there were any weaknesses in Leicester’s armoury they might have surfaced on Saturday against a Manchester City team unbeaten in seven games before kick-off.
And yet they played with drive, conviction and confidence from the moment Huth put them in front, mixing defensive defiance with those lightning counter-attacks that have punctuated their season.
Yes they can with the title – and Leicester City are playing as if they believe they can.
Why can Leicester do it?
The first answer is simple. Leicester are the Premier League’s form team and have a healthy lead. While others such as Manchester City and Arsenal falter, they are standing strong.
Leicester, crucially, have no distractions. They can focus solely on the Premier League, while Arsenal and Manchester City have Champions League and domestic cup commitments.
And what about their fixture list? Seven of their remaining games are at home and they will regard all as eminently winnable.
After Arsenal away next weekend – and who is to say they cannot win there – they have the confidence to pick up points anywhere on their travels, although they face tough trips to Manchester United on Saturday 30 April and then to Chelsea on the final day of the season.
There would be delicious irony in Ranieri standing in front of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, the man who sacked him in 2004, as a Premier League champion.
Who will bet against it? Not, it seems, the bookies.