Leicester City-Manchester United Preview
"All the world's a stage," William Shakespeare famously wrote, and none are bigger in English football than "The Theatre of Dreams" at Old Trafford.
It is here where the most unlikely of teams can become the most celebrated of them all Sunday, for Leicester City would most certainly wear these glories of Premier League champions for more than a day amid lasting rejoice should they emerge with a title-clinching victory at Manchester United.
"We want to do this," manager Claudio Ranieri told Leicester's official website Friday. "We are fighting to make this dream a reality, but not yet. I told (the players) everything is in our hands and we must continue. The story of football is fantastic but you have to be focused on the match, not other things."
The longest of preseason longshots at 5,000-to-1 to win the title, Leicester City (22-10-3) are on the brink of history. Even legendary Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson tipped them to lift the trophy in March.
Ferguson, though, also projected the Foxes wrapping up the race before they arrived at his old stomping grounds. Yet Leicester can join the 2001-02 Arsenal side as the only opponents to secure a Premier League title at Old Trafford.
"We cannot allow that they are the champions this weekend at Old Trafford," United manager Louis van Gaal said. "I think that we have to beat Leicester because we are still in the race for the first positions, so we have to beat them."
With a seven-point lead and three matches remaining, Leicester need only a victory or a loss by Tottenham Hotspur - the last team standing who can overtake the Foxes - at Chelsea on Monday to clinch their first top-flight title in the club's 132-year history. A draw coupled with the Spurs failing to record their first win at Stamford Bridge since 1990 will also be enough for Leicester, whose previous best finish was First Division runners-up in 1928-29.
"We've got three massive games left - three cup finals is what the manager is saying to us," midfielder Andy King told Foxes Player HD. "It's one game at a time - everyone keeps saying it. We've got a tough game at Manchester United, who are going for a top-four position, which is obviously massive for them.
"We're confident of putting in a good performance. That will stand us in good stead and we're looking forward to it."
Leicester are champions-elect following their 4-0 thrashing of Swansea City at King Power Stadium last Sunday, winning easily without suspended striker Jamie Vardy. Newly minted PFA Player of the Year Riyad Mahrez opened the scoring on 10 minutes before Leonardo Ulloa - Vardy's replacement - bagged a brace on either side of halftime.
Marc Albrighton added a fourth as this unlikely saga added more critical mass as a now-worldwide phenomenon. All of Leicester City are on the edge of realising the dream Ranieri is longing to fulfill in the East Midlands while keeping his team rooted in pragmatic reality.
"It is a good opportunity and for this reason we want to be focused," said Ranieri, who's never won a domestic title and finished second four times - once in the Premier League with Chelsea in 2003-04, Serie A with Juventus in '08-09 and Roma in '09-10, and Ligue 1 with Monaco in '13-14.
"I know you want me to talk about the title but be calm and wait. I can understand all the happiness around the city - that is great - but that is the fans and we have to work."
Leicester will again be without Vardy - second in the league to Tottenham's Harry Kane with 22 goals - after the FA extended his ban Tuesday for his outburst at referee Jon Moss versus West Ham United on April 17. Yet his absence barely registered because the "Tinkerman" again proved shrewd with the insertions of Ulloa and midfielder Jeff Schlupp into his starting XI - changes Ranieri may keep for Sunday.
Goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel can help clinch the title on the grounds where his father lifted so many trophies. Peter Schmeichel backstopped Manchester United to five Premier League titles, but only his last one in 1999 was secured at Old Trafford.
The younger Denmark international has seven clean sheets in Leicester's last eight matches.
History provides few parallels to Leicester's meteoric 14-month rise from foot of the table and relegation-bound to England's highest summit. The team's more superstitious followers, though, are keen to note the Foxes have gone 29-12-4 since King Richard III's reinterment ceremony in Leicester on March 26, 2015.
For both distance and storyline, the closest similarity is the 1977-78 Nottingham Forest side - who are also the last English side to win their first title in the top flight. A good omen for Leicester is that Brian Clough's team recorded a shock 4-0 victory at Old Trafford that season.
The fellow East Midlands club - 52 kilometres from King Power Stadium - won the First Division after being promoted the season prior.
Both teams have their share of star power, though Clough's tempestuous and outsized personality often overshadowed his players. That runs directly counter to Ranieri's happy-go-lucky public demeanour, but the common primary attribute both sides sport is a quality spine from goalkeeper to forward.
Schmeichel and captain Wes Morgan have played every minute of Leicester's 35 league matches, while central defender Robert Huth has missed only one.
Midfielders N'Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater have been a standout partnership since Kante became a full-time starter in mid-September, and amazingly, they have accrued only six yellow cards between them in 5,611 minutes.
Vardy's goal-scoring exploits have been roundly praised, and Ulloa and Shinji Okazaki have made vital contributions.
The potential of oddsmakers paying out 5,000-to-1 and other longshot Leicester City bets is also causing a stir. Bookmaker William Hill said only 25 people took those full odds on the Foxes with them when the season began, and 10 cashed out their tickets at various points. One punter, though, is in line for a £112,500 payout after placing a £35 bet at 75-to-1 odds shortly after the season started.
Including cashouts, William Hill expect to pay out more than £3 million should Leicester City win the title, nearly 10 times the £378,892 they took in. They've also estimated the top bookmakers in England will lose between £10 million and £15 million.
Las Vegas sports books in the United States are also reportedly on the hook for an estimated £683,000 ($1 million). But this is a one-off for those oddsmakers, who have not lost money on their biggest betting day - the Super Bowl - since the New York Giants defeated the unbeaten New England Patriots in 2008.
Even those losses - a mere £1.77 million ($2.57 million) on £63.23 million ($92 million) wagered according to BetFirm - pale in comparison to the havoc a Leicester title will create for British oddsmakers.
But many wagers for a match at Old Trafford have been cashed backing Manchester United. The Foxes, who have dropped five on the bounce there, have one Premier League-era victory in nine visits (1-2-6) - a 1-0 triumph on Jan. 31, 1998 - and five at Old Trafford since it opened in 1910.
Manchester United (17-8-9) have much at stake, needing a win to help overtake Arsenal for the final Champions League spot as part of the ongoing efforts to save van Gaal's job. United have won six straight league matches at Old Trafford and haven't conceded there in 381 minutes since beating Arsenal 3-2 on Feb. 28.
Van Gaal will get to play for a trophy - which would be United's first since Ferguson retired in 2013 - after beating Everton 2-1 in the FA Cup semifinals at Wembley Stadium on April 23. Anthony Martial scored a dramatic late winner, but securing United's first FA Cup final berth since 2007 did nothing to quell speculation the Dutch manager will be replaced by ex-Chelsea boss Jose Mourinho win or lose next month in London.
"It's not for me to judge, it's for the board of Manchester United," van Gaal said about his job status. "I am not looking beyond this competition, the FA Cup, because we live in the present. And for the future I will discuss that with my board and not with you."
The win featured Wayne Rooney playing behind Martial and starlet Marcus Rashford, a role United's talisman may reprise for England this summer at the European Championship. It also may be the best way United shake the offensive doldrums that have plagued them much of the season.
"At this moment I think that Rashford does a very good job in the striker's position and now Wayne can contribute to the team more in the midfield," van Gaal said. "It is not the first time he has played in midfield."
Given the financial windfall the Champions League provides - and arguably Manchester United needs - winning a record-tying 12th FA Cup title is secondary to a top-four finish. They are five points behind Arsenal for fourth but own a match in hand on the Gunners.
United, though, will need help from their "noisy neighbours" since Arsenal's run-in features home matches against relegation-threatened Norwich City and Championship-bound Aston Villa around a trip to the Etihad Stadium to face Man City. United play at Norwich and West Ham before closing their slate at home versus Bournemouth.
Vardy was the central figure in a 1-1 draw in the reverse fixture on Nov. 28, his 24th-minute goal giving him a Premier League-record 11-match goal-scoring streak that eclipsed former Manchester United star Ruud van Nistelrooy's 10-match run. Bastian Schweinsteiger secured a point for United with an equaliser in first-half stoppage time.
By Monday night, though, a point may be enough to complete the most incredible story in English football.