Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini has played down the significance of Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash with Leicester.
The Foxes have defied sceptics throughout the season and travel to Etihad Stadium as the surprise leaders of the Premier League. Leicester hold a three-point lead at the top and have shown no signs of slowing down with the outstanding Jamie Vardy firing them to a superb 2-0 win over Liverpool in midweek.
Claudio Ranieri’s outsiders are now starting to be regarded as genuine title contenders and their meeting with City is being eagerly anticipated, but Pellegrini points out it is not a decisive match.
The Chilean said: “We can win this game or lose this game and it will not finish the Premier League here. After this you still have to play 13 more games, 39 points. There are still a lot of points.
“You cannot think because you win you are the champions. If you lose you still have a lot of things to fight for between now and the end of the season.”
The seeds for Leicester’s dramatic rise were sown in their late charge away from relegation last season. Pellegrini has been impressed and believes they are capable of lasting the course. He added: “I think Leicester started playing very well last season. They won seven of their last nine games. They started playing with high confidence, knowing what they can do.
“This season, maybe at the beginning it was a surprise but now it is not a surprise. They are playing with a very high performance, they have a team that works well together and they have an experienced manager. I think they will be involved in the title race until the end.
“I hope we can win to close the gap and continue fighting.”
Meanwhile, Pellegrini has threatened to field an under-strength City side in their FA Cup fifth-round tie at Chelsea.
Pellegrini says he will field a team of youngsters if the date of the fixture is fixed by the FA on Sunday, February 21.
City are planning to travel to Ukraine the following day ahead of the first leg of their Champions League last-16 tie against Dynamo Kiev on February 24. That in turn comes just four days before the League Cup final against Liverpool at Wembley.
Quique Flores has stoked the fire ahead of Watford’s Premier League clash against Tottenham by declaring he would not swap Odion Ighalo or Troy Deeney for Harry Kane.
England international Kane now has 14 goals from his last 15 league appearances after he scored a brace in Spurs’ 3-0 victory at Norwich on Tuesday night.
But, when asked if he would prefer to have Kane in his side rather than Ighalo or Deeney, Flores replied: “No, no. I don’t change my players for anyone.”
Kane’s league tally for the season stands at 15, which is one greater than Ighalo has managed, while Deeney has found the back of the net on six occasions. Hornets captain Deeney has also created 26 chances for Ighalo, which is more than any other player for a teammate in the Premier League.
“(On Saturday) we have the opportunity to look at three of the best strikers in the league,” Flores added. “Kane is a very good player and he is very important for them.
“Tottenham play really well in midfield with Dele Alli, Christian Eriksen and Mousa Dembele, but if you don’t have a good striker it is impossible – and they have one of the best strikers in the league.”
Meanwhile, Everton striker Romelu Lukaku’s determination to play through pain is another example of the character being shown by members of the squad, according to manager Roberto Martinez.
The Belgium international was forced off in the midweek win over Newcastle with a back problem which left him struggling to walk but not before trying to soldier on for the good of the team.
It is why Martinez expects the 22-year-old to take his place in the side to face Stoke on Saturday.
“He is reliable and that is why I am positive about him being available because he knows how to make himself available for games,” the Toffees boss said.
Southampton can welcome back new striker Charlie Austin for the visit of West Ham. The January signing has shaken off the knock which kept him out of the midweek draw at Arsenal.
Manchester United boss Louis van Gaal feels his side can still win the title this season.
Van Gaal feels United played some “sparkling football” in the midweek win over Stoke and another victory at Chelsea on Sunday would reignite their campaign. His comments come less than a fortnight after a dismal loss to Southampton that saw United and Van Gaal booed at Old Trafford and intensified speculation over his future.
But United got back to winning ways with victory at Derby in the FA Cup and then switched to a more attacking style to brush Stoke aside 3-0.
They are still 10 points behind Premier League leaders Leicester but Van Gaal claims the gap is not insurmountable. He said: “I have the feeling that when we shall beat Chelsea – and that is not simple, that is very difficult, since Guus Hiddink has been there they don’t lose any more – I think our competition, our league is starting again.
“That is very important. The competition is not yet finished, not for Manchester United or the other teams. We have the feeling, and that’s because we are winning twice in a row and with sparkling football – with goals and clean sheets, against opponents who were in great form.
“Stoke City played Liverpool off the pitch in the League Cup but they lost on penalties.”
Van Gaal is also hopeful of taking his side to the Europa League final, if his comments on left-back Luke Shaw are anything to go by. Shaw suffered a double leg break in the Champions League game at PSV Eindhoven in September but has been included in United’s squad for the Europa League in the second half of the season.
Van Gaal said: “He can play the final. That I have said to him. That is a goal that he has to live for.”
Van Gaal may be expecting a tough test against Hiddink’s side at Stamford Bridge but was unwilling to engage in conversation about his fellow former Dutch national boss. The pair are two of Holland’s most successful managers of recent times but are not close.
Asked what his past dealings with Hiddink were like, Van Gaal said: “Professional.”
In the past, Holland international Wesley Sneijder has described Van Gaal as a “tough schoolteacher” and Hiddink as a “friendly uncle”. Van Gaal was also unwilling to comment on those remarks.