Manchester City, Pep Guardiola need three vital points vs. Leicester
As ex-Leicester supreme Claudio Ranieri told the press, there is an old Italian saying: "You do not sell the bear's skin until you have shot it." In the more prosaic environs of central Manchester, it tends to be chickens that must not be counted until they have hatched.
Whichever idiom you subscribe to, the words of last season's title-winning coach ring true for fourth-placed Pep Guardiola and Manchester City on the eve of his side's game at home to Ranieri-less Leicester City on Saturday.
Football can never be accused of being slow-paced, either on or off the pitch. A year on from Leicester's title win, they are happy to be guided to mid-table security by a distinctly low-profile Craig Shakespeare, while City are still fighting for crumbs under Guardiola.
A relatively short time ago, the crumbs of third place in the Premier League would have had City supporters dancing in the streets. However, the club's targets have been raised season by season since the arrival of Sheikh Mansour's five-star patronage, and these days qualifying directly for the Champions League is seen as the absolute minimum requirement.
This, then, is the objective that will be fixed firmly in the Man City players' minds on Saturday as they face a foe that has in recent times caused unnecessary amounts of grief, after many years of placid failures against City. Before the last two fixtures between the two sides, which have brought Leicester six points and seven goals, you had to scan the historical stats carefully to find Leicester's successes against City.
That all changed last season when Ranieri's well-balanced side counterattacked City to submission at the Etihad in a crucial early February game that put the visitors five points clear at the top of the table. At that stage the gap was not insurmountable, but Leicester clearly meant business.
For City, it was evident that Manuel Pellegrini's reign was unravelling in alarming fashion. That match heralded a third home defeat of the season -- matching the combined total of the Chilean's entire first two seasons -- and began to bring attention to a sadly unbalanced record City are continuing against fellow members of the top six. The record has been maintained by Pellegrini's lofty successor this season, with only Arsenal of the top-placed sides succumbing to City's charms. Even that Premier League defeat was quickly avenged when the Londoners turfed City from the FA Cup semifinals.
This season was meant to be different for City. While Leicester fans braced themselves for the inevitable disappointment of losing their hard-earned title, City under Guardiola seemed to be a gift from the gods. The good times would roll in and City would blaze to multiple glories, passing the ball as if it were on a golden thread leading (in)directly to the opposition goal.
As it turned out, both sets of supporters had a surprise waiting for them, and it is open to dispute as to which was greater. While Leicester have flirted with relegation, prompting Ranieri's dismissal, City have flattered to deceive.
Starting the season with Champions League pre-qualifying, Guardiola's side put in a performance in Bucharest against Steaua that was absolutely stunning. The structure, the movement, the tactics and the efficacy took the breath away as City fans stood back to admire the sumptuous view.
By the time Guardiola's charges rolled into Leicester for a league game in December, however, a very different pattern had emerged. The slick passing was still there, but a glum failure to kill off opponents had emerged and City were floundering badly.
To underline just how bad the situation had become, the 4-2 loss was Leicester's first home win over City since 1988 and represented a first win in six for them, with Jamie Vardy notching an unlikely hat trick.
City's collapse in this game had been so abject that it brought memories flooding back of the 2003 reverse at home to Arsenal in the bad old days, when the home side was given such a runaround that Arsenal were sent from the pitch at half-time to a loud and prolonged standing ovation from the City fans. Indeed, that match had been the last time City had conceded three goals inside the first 20 minutes of a Premier League game.
Despite this, with Leicester lying 14th and City fourth, respective chances of success were still clearly tipped in City's favour at that stage. Serious improvement never transpired, however, and a combination of injuries to Vincent Kompany, Gabriel Jesus and Ilkay Gundogan, along with a distinct inability to make the most of the chances created -- City's record of 259 corners and four goals is the worst in the entire division -- have left the club struggling to keep up with a powerful front two of Chelsea and Tottenham.
Now City's needs are clear. To quote Ranieri once more, City's orchestra must rely on the combination of "boom, boom, boom and tweet, tweet" that surfaced in last week's thrashing of Crystal Palace to ensure three vital points on the way to third place.
Simon is one of ESPN FC's Manchester City bloggers. Follow him on Twitter @bifana_bifana.