LEICESTER, England — After a fourth successive 1-0 victory sent Leicester into a seven-point lead, some giddy fans started to unfurl Premier League "champions" scarves in the King Power Stadium.
Although there are still six games remaining after Sunday’s gritty win over Southampton, celebrations are already underway in this unassuming central England town.
When you’ve experienced the roller-coaster of emotions endured by followers of Leicester, it is little wonder they can’t wait for the unlikeliest of Premier League title parties next month.
Exactly a year ago, Leicester was braced for relegation while stranded seven points from safety at the bottom of the Premier League.
The standings on Sunday showed Leicester seven points clear at the right end, looking down on north London teams Tottenham and Arsenal, and Manchester rivals City and United.
Leicester captain Wes Morgan secured Sunday’s victory with his first goal of the season on the eve of the first anniversary of the start of the great escape.
It was the April 4, 2015 triumph over West Ham that sparked a startling resurgence. Six of the final nine games of last season were won as Leicester not only beat the drop but gained the confidence that has been carried into this season.
April 4 is also the birthday of the Thai retail tycoon who has owned Leicester for six years and will surely be the first chairman in the club’s 132-year history to lift the English topflight trophy in May. Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha was serenaded by his players on Sunday with a rendition of "Happy Birthday" greeting his pre-match arrival in the dressing room. Outside the stadium, fans were treated to free beer and doughnuts by him — adding to the joyful atmosphere.
But like so often in recent weeks it was a nervy 90 minutes on the pitch as Leicester ground out another slender win and top-scorer Jamie Vardy went a sixth game for his club without scoring.
Leicester defender Danny Simpson had a lucky escape when his raised right arm blocked a shot in the penalty area and no spot kick was awarded. Compounding the grievances for Southampton, the seventh-place team fell behind in the 38th minute when Morgan met Christian Fuchs’ cross to net with a powerful header.
"I’ve been getting a lot of stick because I haven’t scored all season," said the defender, who battled through a cold to play. "The boys, to keep them quiet, to shush them up is fantastic."
The mission for manager Claudio Ranieri now is to quieten all the title-talk.
"We must stay with our feet on the ground because … all the matches are very, very tough, very difficult," said the former Chelsea manager, whose target for the season was simply avoiding relegation.
"We believe in what we’re doing. We believe it’s a magical season. We believe next season it will not be the same."
For now Ranieri is focused on securing Champions League qualification with a top-four finish. That seems a certainty for the first time in Leicester history with Manchester City 15 points behind in fourth place and 21 points to play for.
Man United, English football’s most successful title with 20 championship crowns, remains 16 points adrift of Leicester in fifth place after beating Everton 1-0 in Sunday’s other game.
After a 10th goalless first half in 15 league matches at Old Trafford, Anthony Martial lifted the atmosphere by scoring from United’s first shot on target in the 54th minute. The France forward turned in Tim Fosu-Mensah’s cross from close range.
"Today was not our best form because I think we were not fresh enough," United manager Louis van Gaal said.
It was a day to forget for Everton, which remains 12th and was booed off by its own fans.
"We are a club that there has been a bit of a change of generation," Everton manager Roberto Martinez said. "A lot of players have come in but incredible young talent needs know-how and lessons and to develop.
"The frustration we all have is we can see the quality we have in our squad and we can’t really gain some sort of momentum."