(Reuters) - A fresh chapter in Leicester City’s unlikely fairytale was written on Saturday as they ensured they would sit top of the Premier League tree on Christmas Day exactly one year after languishing at the foot of the table.
Their 3-2 victory at Everton, fashioned with all the now familiar speed and elan that has characterised Claudio Ranieri’s dramatic reign, continued an extraordinary makeover from relegation certainties last season to genuine title contenders.
A double for Riyad Mahrez from the penalty spot, ensuring that with the Algerian on 13 goals and Jamie Vardy on 15 Leicester now have the league’s two top marksmen, set up the latest win in a success story which is enchanting all neutrals.
Eleven times in the Premier League era the team leading at Christmas has gone on to win the title but the ever-cautious Ranieri was still more preoccupied with reaching the 40-point target he believes will guarantee Premier League safety.
Referring to Leicester having reached 38 points, the Italian told Sky Sports with a wry smile: “It’s two less than 40...two less. I think we’ll have a very good Christmas Day but the day after it’s very difficult to come back here (to Merseyside).”
Leicester, who are five points clear at the top, visit Liverpool on Boxing Day with the comfort of knowing that no side leading the league at Christmas have finished lower than sixth.
That is an outcome Leicester could only have dreamed about this time last year when Ranieri’s predecessor Nigel Pearson was overseeing a calamitous early part of the campaign.
Their end-of-season rejuvenation saved their Premier League skin but not Pearson’s job and, initially, Ranieri, often derided as the ‘Tinkerman’ thanks to his penchant for changing teams, was not embraced as a convincing replacement.
Yet the former Chelsea boss has produced a side with pace, panache and fearless confidence who may be beginning to truly believe now they have moved further ahead at the top.
Arsenal and Manchester City, on 33 and 32 points respectively, could close the gap when they meet on Monday, but asked what he felt his side could start thinking of if they reach his 40-point target, Ranieri shrugged: “I don’t know.
“I’d like to speak with my players because it’s important what they believe and what they think they can achieve.
“It’s nice to have 38 points, very nice, good but I’ve already talked to my players, cleaned the minds and (we) go forward.”
With each match, though, they seem to harden their resolve.
After Leicester went two goals up at Goodison Park, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku fired home from six yards for the seventh successive league game — four behind England forward Vardy’s record set earlier this season.
Yet Vardy again proved a pivotal figure. Having been brought down by Everton goalkeeper Tim Howard for the second penalty, he then set up the unmarked Shinji Okazaki to fire home Leicester’s third. Kevin Mirallas’s late reply was merely a consolation.
Reporting by Ian Chadband; Editing by Ken Ferris