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 By Nick Ames

Despite Ranieri's objections, Leicester City have the look of champions

"I didn't see the table. Is it true?"

Claudio Ranieri has held the media in the palm of his hand for the past seven months, but nobody in his postmatch news conference took seriously his affected disbelief that Leicester could once more be five points clear atop the Premier League.

It is getting more and more real, and the roars that greet each full-time whistle at the King Power Stadium get louder and louder. This was the kind of test that a side with a modicum of doubt about its destiny would have flunked.

Leicester CityLeicester City
Newcastle UnitedNewcastle United
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Leicester could have been excused an element of uncertainty after the fanfare around Rafa Benitez's appointment at Newcastle but, despite coming under pressure in both halves, looked danger in the eye throughout and toughed out the sort of functional, no-frills win that every successful team will be required to chalk up.

"We played better at Aston Villa and in our last match here against West Brom, but we drew both of those games," Ranieri said, recalling two fixtures in which his side played some of their now-familiar swashbuckling football going forwards but were caught cold at the back.

"[Tonight] we were very concentrated, and we won three points. At this stage of the season the points are important, not how you play."

If these comments could have been sent back in time to last August, there would barely be a Leicester supporter who did not presume they referred to a relegation fight.

Those who make that din inside their home ground still sing, gleefully but with that extra level of wry amusement every week, that "we are staying up." In Ranieri's programme notes, he had dared to set his sights a little higher. 

"If Leicester City could qualify for the Europa League, it would be amazing for this club and that must now be our next target," Ranieri wrote.

It would take a monumental collapse to let that slip now, but the realisation is also dawning that it would take a notable tailing-off to let first place similarly get away.

Leicester City grew their advantage atop the Premier League to five points on Monday.

Beneath Ranieri's genial exterior lies a character who, as some of his match-winning substitutions in recent weeks have shown, has demonstrated how sharply he can react to perceived adversity.

"In the first half I was little angry as we played so wide when we lost the ball, weren't so compact and [Newcastle] worked through the middle," the Italian manager said. "We lost so many balls and weren't so smart.

"The second half was much better; they put us under pressure but we closed well and I don't remember Kaspar Schmeichel having to make any fantastic saves."

Schmeichel, whose goal had been endangered a few times early on as Newcastle came out sharply, was never really bothered despite the visitors' possession.

The way Leicester have developed their game management -- from being a side that spent the autumn overturning deficits to take points against the likes of West Brom, Southampton, Stoke and Aston Villa -- is another remarkable facet of their tale.

Newcastle were rarely allowed to make inroads in dangerous areas after the first 10 minutes, and Leicester showed the meanness of a side that simply does not expect to make a fatal mistake.

N'Golo Kante, who recovered from being beaten for power early on by Moussa Sissoko -- possibly a future France teammate -- was back to his high-octane best after struggling slightly in the win over Watford, while a tough-tackling back four stuck to their jobs with discipline.

Benitez expressed his pleasure at most elements of Newcastle's performance and, asked about Leicester's hopes of seeing their title charge through, was slightly qualified in his praise.

"I think they are doing well," Benitez said. "I think away [from home] they will be very dangerous and at home it depends on the other team, but with the tempo they have they will create chances and be a problem for anyone."

Leicester will certainly be expected to find more openings in their next three tests -- against Crystal Palace, Southampton and Sunderland -- than they did on Monday. But the fact that they have discovered the means to outwit teams who sit deep and deny space for Jamie Vardy and company to run into, as Newcastle did, augurs well.

Palace, a team with a similar, dynamic counterattacking style, will pose another difficult challenge on Saturday. But Leicester are ticking them off with the alacrity of a side impervious to self-doubt and any arguments against their capability to stay the course are fast becoming a waste of breath. Not that there is any chance of the conversation around them abating. 

"I understand there is so much noise around the world," Ranieri said of the feverish excitement that means the press box at Leicester's home games is these days full to bursting with outlets from all corners of the planet.

"All the people are speaking about Leicester, but we must continue to stay calm and try to do our jobs, enjoy the training sessions and play our football. Of course our fans are so proud of us, but I just look at the next match. Alan Pardew was upstairs watching us today, and it is going to be another tough game."

There is no questioning that. But Leicester march on and on, giving us moments like Shinji Okazaki's acrobatic winner to savour even when not at their brightest, and -- for all their manager's protestations -- are looking every inch a side that will achieve something remarkable.

Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC on a range of topics. Twitter: @NickAmes82.


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