One hand on the tro­phy but Ranieri won’t be watch­ing

Ti­tle could be won tonight but lunch with mother is pri­or­ity

The Daily Telegraph - Total Football - - FRONT PAGE - Ja­son Burt CHIEF FOOT­BALL CORRESPONDENT

Clau­dio Ranieri could be fly­ing high tonight if Tot­ten­ham Hot­spur fail to win at his for­mer club Chelsea and Le­ices­ter City claim the first league ti­tle in the club’s 132-year his­tory.

But then Ranieri will be fly­ing high what­ever hap­pens, on a plane back from a trip to Rome, which is sched­uled to land af­ter the Spurs match fin­ishes. Not that Ranieri, Le­ices­ter, their ju­bi­lant fans or even the wider world of foot­ball will come back down to earth just then.

Le­ices­ter’s surely im­pend­ing ti­tle tri­umph, de­layed here with a char­ac­ter­ful draw, has sent the spir­its soar­ing. They are fly­ing high in so many ways. Had you pre­dicted they would have achieved this last Au­gust you would have been told your head was in the clouds.

But, in­stead of those clouds, it is all about Clau­dio. This is not a flight of fancy.

Le­ices­ter could have won the ti­tle if they had won this match. But a draw was no wob­ble. In­stead it was a per­for­mance packed full of be­lief, or­gan­i­sa­tion, grit and skill. There was bril­liance and also, as is their trade­mark, bel­liger­ence. There was the mark of cham­pi­ons at the home of United, where 20 ti­tles can be boasted.

And, in this most quixotic of sea­sons, there was con­tro­versy and colour­ful ba­nal­ity with a se­ries of in­ci­dents which cul­mi­nated in United man­ager Louis van Gaal ac­cus­ing Le­ices­ter de­fender Robert Huth of be­hav­iour more in keep­ing with “sex masochism” af­ter pulling Marouane Fel­laini’s hair.

There was another, more rel­e­vant, form of fan­tasy. In the Theatre of Dreams, Le­ices­ter took another step to­wards ful­fill­ing their own, more whole­some rever­ies. They are eight points clear at the top.

The re­mark­able nar­ra­tive around Le­ices­ter should not com­pletely dom­i­nate another story. Van Gaal said United had to win this to keep alive their hopes of fin­ish­ing in the top four, of se­cur­ing Cham­pi­ons League foot­ball, but they could not achieve it de­spite a blis­ter­ing first half-hour.

The pres­sure will grow, with that Jose Mour­inho plot also back in town, de­servedly so for Van Gaal even if the set­back was in keep­ing with this topsy-turvy sea­son, only soft­ened by Manch­ester City’s thump­ing loss to Southamp­ton.

There were fur­ther, im­me­di­ate, lo­calised sto­ry­lines also with Le­ices­ter once more re­duced to 10 men through a send­ing off, with Danny Drinkwa­ter shown two yel­low cards for re­peat­ing the same of­fence.

He tugged back Mar­cus Rash­ford early in the se­cond half and, in the 87th minute, also pulled back sub­sti­tute Mem­phis De­pay with the red card flour­ished by ref­eree Michael Oliver.

Even then there was con­tro­versy with United ar­gu­ing that their for­mer mid­fielder – who had been out­stand­ing – had con­tin­ued the of­fence in­side the penalty area and a spot-kick should have been awarded. Then there was even more con­tro­versy, with sug­ges­tions that Drinkwa­ter ver­bally abused Oliver as he left the pitch.

The Foot­ball As­so­ci­a­tion will scru­ti­nise Oliver’s re­port be­fore de­cid­ing if fur­ther ac­tion needs to be taken – as it did re­cently in the case of Jamie Vardy – against Drinkwa­ter, who will re­ceive at least a one-match ban, but also against Fel­laini and Huth.

So another big game, another set of con­tro­ver­sies and mar­ginal calls.

There were more. Jesse Lin­gard fell as he ran through from half­way, hav­ing in­ter­cepted a care­less square pass by Danny Simp­son, another for­mer United player, but no ac­tion was taken. United fans howled for Simp­son to go but it did not look a foul as both play­ers had their arms across each other.

Then Riyad Mahrez went over as he was chal­lenged by Mar­cos Rojo in the United area but penalty ap­peals were waved away when one could eas­ily have been given. Van Gaal in­sisted that Fel­laini, as well, should have been awarded a spot-kick for that Huth hair-tug.

So the cham­pagne is on ice. And ice, also, ran through the blood of some of these Le­ices­ter play­ers with Drinkwa­ter – the red card not­with­stand­ing – and cap­tain Wes Mor­gan out­stand­ing and ev­ery­one else res­o­lutely play­ing a part.

It was Mor­gan who shored things up with Le­ices­ter’s equal­is­ing goal which owed every­thing to his pow­er­ful de­sire to get to the ball ahead of Rojo, who was brushed aside and strug­gled all af­ter­noon, and meet Drinkwa­ter’s free-kick to head home. In that mo­ment was caught another rea­son why Le­ices­ter are head­ing to the ti­tle.

It came af­ter they had fallen be­hind and then were in­debted to another hero, Kasper Sch­me­ichel, mak­ing his first ap­pear­ance at this sta­dium where his fa­ther, here to watch, had been such a com­mand­ing pres­ence in the United goal.

Sch­me­ichel ju­nior beat out a fierce first-time shot by Lin­gard that could have dou­bled United’s ad­van­tage.

At that mo­ment United were ram­pant, trans­formed from the pon­der­ous, turgid team they had been for most of this cam­paign with An­thony Mar­tial hav­ing given them the lead.

It came as United flew for­ward with width and with Antonio Va­len­cia charg­ing ahead from right-back to arc a cross with the out­side of his boot that de­ceived Simp­son and ran through to Mar­tial who swept it past Sch­me­ichel and just in­side the near post.

On the touch­line Ranieri will have rue­fully re­flected that it was he, less than three years ago, who had given Mar­tial his de­but at Monaco – and now here he was, a £58 mil­lion striker who might just have de­layed his dream.

But cham­pi­ons re­spond. They find a way and Le­ices­ter would not be de­nied. Once level it was nip and tuck al­though, into the se­cond half, it was Ranieri’s side car­ry­ing the greater threat. As crosses flew in, Leonardo Ul­loa started to win them, but they could not quite test David De Gea.

Af­ter Drinkwa­ter’s dis­missal it switched again with United, a man up, in­evitably fin­ish­ing strong­est.

“We shall not be moved,” sang the Le­ices­ter fans – and they did not move for a long time af­ter the fi­nal whis­tle as they stayed on loud, be­liev­ing and sound­ing like cham­pi­ons. They are fly­ing.

Cap­tain Wes Mor­gan cel­e­brates scor­ing Le­ices­ter’s equaliser at Old Traf­ford

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