Proud Leicester depart for two-week holiday unbowed

Calm and charm personified, Claudio Ranieri strode proudly into the Arsenal press conference room with the air of a winner, shook hands with a few visiting fellow Italians here to report on the match.
Proud Leicester depart for two-week holiday unbowed

He smiled, joked, and exuded confidence, not the look of a man who had just witnessed his side suffer a last-minute defeat against their closest title rivals, having had a player sent off for the first time this season.

Yes, Leicester’s manager castigated referee Martin Atkinson for his bizarre decision making, claiming it was key in only their third defeat of their remarkable season and he admitted to being “a very angry man”. But he spent most of his time praising his hard-working players, who still head the league table by two points and now have a two-week rest.

Ranieri has told them he does not want to see them until next Monday and will himself spend a few days recharging his batteries in Italy.

Arsene Wenger was relatively relaxed too, of course. Having overseen an essential win, he returned to the media area an hour later to show some visiting friends from France around, smiling as he posed for photos with them before his side embark on contrasting cup ties against Hull and Barcelona before they resume domestic action at Manchester United.

But no such anxieties or distractions for Ranieri, whose team now have to play only two of the current top six in their 12 remaining matches. Their next opponents are relegation candidates Norwich, at home. West Brom, Watford, and Newcastle follow — all eminently winnable matches.

Yesterday marked the end of a tough three-game streak in which Leicester also faced Liverpool and went to Manchester City. Ranieri revealed afterwards he had had a wager with his players, offering them a holiday if they won all nine points from the games.

Privately, he conceded, five points with a home win and two away draws would have been more than satisfactory, so to come out with just this narrowest of defeats has left him and the players still feeling like winners and they will get their break all the same.

Ranieri said: “I was happy with one point from City and one point from this game, but we achieved three so I told the players ‘ok, it’s the same as if you won the match. Go home and we will see you next Monday because you deserve it.’ They made a fantastic performance. They can go wherever they want. I don’t know where, Dubai maybe. I will have one day in London and then I go to Rome.”

Only the 54th-minute sending off of Danny Simpson for two bookable offences really allowed Arsenal to throw everything at the visitors. It was not until substitute Theo Walcott’s 70th-minute equaliser that they recorded a shot on target. Danny Welbeck’s winner was as remarkable as it was late.

Ranieri said: “I am very angry because I think maybe I make mistakes, but an international referee gave two yellow cards for normal fouls and the match was full of fouls and very difficult fouls. When you make one yellow card players have to stay calm, but also the referee.”

The fact more than the allotted four minutes of added time were played also irritated the Italian, but that was due to his players’ time-wasting so no cause for complaint there. He went to great lengths to stress there is no stress in the Leicester camp, whatever their opponents might want to heap on them.

He said the players were told not to worry ahead of the holiday, that they would still be two points on top when they came back to training and be up for the fight ahead. A morale-boosting win for Arsenal, certainly, but this is not the end of Leicester City. They have only just begun the fun.

As Ranieri said: “What now? I have a dream but I don’t tell you what is my dream. Maybe you can imagine but I don’t tell you! I think our fans are proud of us because we are doing something special and I want our players to continue in this way.

“The players are sad now, me too, but my reaction is to laugh with you because I am strong and I want my players to follow me.”

This title race is going to the wire and Leicester are determined to be at the end-of-season party. This defeat does little to diminish their right to be considered worthy contenders.

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