Kingston upon Hull (United Kingdom) (AFP) – After watching their team complete a footballing miracle in May, Leicester City’s fans will be cautious about writing off the Premier League champions’ hopes of a repeat.
Manager Claudio Ranieri, however, is happy to dismiss the Foxes’ chances of a second fairytale out of hand.
Having spent last season successfully playing down expectations until his team completed one of sport’s most unlikely triumphs, the Italian has adopted a similar trick on the eve of the new campaign.
Ahead of his side’s season opener at Hull City on Saturday, the amiable Italian used a typically colourful analogy to emphasis his point.
“The big teams are ready to fight for the title and we are ready to defend our title,” he said.
“But we know it is a different gap now. Last season we did something unbelievable, but now the big teams are back, I am sure. Now we have to fight. Our target is 40 points, then see what happens.
“Of course they (big clubs) are stronger because they can’t have a mistake another year.
“They lost one season, and in the life of those big teams that can happen, but altogether it only happens once in a lifetime.
“I am very curious. All the world is curious (about) what will happen with Leicester. I think the bookmakers have to make it 6,000-1 now.
“It is impossible. It is more difficult than last season. It is easier for ET to come to Piccadilly Circus!”
Ranieri’s squad has a clean bill of health ahead of the trip to Humberside, with Riyad Mahrez expected to start.
The Algerian winger has been at the centre of intense speculation about his future, with strong claims in France that he is keen to leave for Arsenal.
– Hull in turmoil –
“Never has Riyad come to me and said, ‘Coach, I want to go’ because I’ll kill him before he tells me this!” joked Ranieri, making a strangling motion.
“It’s not a problem. When there is all this attention around your name, it’s because you are doing well.
“The speculation is normal. He is a big player and he needs to feel there are other teams and managers who want him.
“I don’t know, who is interested? Tell me if there is one. Arsenal? No. Riyad will stay with us.”
Hull could hardly be going into the new season in worse shape after a close season of uncertainty at the renamed KCOM Stadium.
Promotion back to the top flight at the first attempt, albeit via the play-offs, could have been used as a platform for progress.
But the resignation of popular manager Steve Bruce, following an apparent breakdown in his working relationship with vice-chairman Ehab Allam, put a stop to that prospect. A permanent replacement is still to be appointed.
With Hull also up for sale and the subject of takeover talks with a Far East-led consortium, the state of limbo has persisted.
Former assistant manager Mike Phelan will be in charge for the visit of the champions after a failed attempt to try and lure Chris Coleman from his job as Wales manager.
So far Phelan has not signed any players to add to a squad already severely depleted by injuries and weakened by the departure of key midfielder Mohamed Diame to Newcastle United.
Goalkeeper Allan McGregor, defenders Alex Bruce and Michael Dawson and wide player Moses Odubajo are all long-term absentees, while fans are planning to protest at Saturday’s game at the way the club is being run.
Phelan hopes the team he puts out is able to thrive in the face of adversity.
“You’re going into a new season having earned the right to be in the Premier League and we shouldn’t forget the work that was put in last year to get us up,” he said.
“I think the players have come together and been a close unit over the last few weeks.”