Each passing week, the doubters have waited for the wheels to unceremoniously fall off the most unlikely of title bandwagons. Yet with every convincing performance and eye-catching result, Claudio Ranieri’s side have proved the ‘told you so’ brigade wrong.
They were at it again on Wearside, a venue they have increasingly fond memories of. Last year, they celebrated sealing the most momentous of great escapes here to secure their Premier League status, having at one stage appeared dead and buried.
Fast forward 11 months, and they were hailing something altogether more significant, as they took their latest significant stride towards a fairytale success that has always appeared too good to be true. To give them their due, Leicester now look too good to end up as anything other than Premier League champions.
“It’s difficult to express what I feel inside,” Ranieri confessed after his emotional response in dedicating a fifth consecutive victory to Leicester’s army of 2,500 travelling supporters. The Italian, who had left the field in tears, a mixture of relief and euphoria one suspects, added: “I really want to thank our fans. Today, when we arrived at the stadium, it was like we’d moved Leicester to Sunderland.”
Playing down his unexpectedly open post-match demeanour, he added: “For me I don’t think I showed any more or any less emotion today, but I’m just so happy with this victory against a very tough Sunderland side who made it hard for us.”
That, they certainly did. The hosts deserved at least a share of the spoils for pushing the leaders all the way, until they were undone by two rapier-like counter-attacks, both finished by Jamie Vardy. “I’m so pleased for Jamie,” Ranieri added. “He’s not scored for us for a while despite playing so well. At half-time I said to him ‘I need you’ and his response was two goals.”
The first arrived in the 66th minute, Vardy’s first in open play in the league for more than two months as he out-paced Younes Kaboul to a 60-yard Danny Drinkwater pass before beating Vito Mannone from a diminishing angle. The second, deep in stoppage time, saw him again sprint past the Sunderland rearguard, rounding Mannone to roll the ball into an unguarded net.
As consistent as Leicester’s performances — it’s five straight wins and no goal conceded for more than eight hours — is their approach to playing down the hype. Again responding with a dead bat to talk of impending title celebrations, Ranieri added: “People can say we’re going to win the title, that’s fine for them to say that. But it’s important for us to now focus on the next match. For now we’re happy, but from tomorrow again we focus on the next match.” That will be the visit of West Ham to the King Power Stadium next Sunday.
Sunderland, third from bottom and four points from safety, are down but by no means out. They have a game in hand over Norwich, who they face at Carrow Road in a pivotal fixture on Saturday. A fourth consecutive great escape looks increasingly unlikely, but is by no means out of the question.
They should have levelled through substitute Jack Rodwell, who skied a clear chance from 10 yards shortly before Vardy’s second. There were other chances. Missed opportunities threaten to become the epitaph on another season of struggle, but Sam Allardyce insisted: “The flickers of hope are still there.” More hope than expectation.
He added: “My disappointment is not so much today, because we’ve given a good account of ourselves against the top of the league. My disappointment is the points we’ve thrown away in three or four games this season and that’s the problem we’re suffering from now.
“The key for us is that we can’t afford to lose at Norwich because we have a game in hand on them. They’d be seven points clear of us if we lose, so that can’t happen.”
Mannone 7; Yedlin 6, Kone 6, Kaboul 6, van Aanholt 6; Kirchhoff 6, Borini 6 (Lens 76, 4), M’Vila 5 (Rodwell 68, 4), Cattermole 5, Khazri 4 (N’Doye 68, 4); Defoe 5.
Pickford, Jones, Larsson, O’Shea.
Schmeichel 8; Simpson 7, Morgan 7, Huth 7, Fuchs 7; Mahrez 5 (Gray 80, 6), Kante 8, Drinkwater 8, Albrighton 8 (Amartey 84, 5); Okazaki 6 (Ulloa 61, 6), Vardy 8.
Schwarzer, King, Dyer, Chilwell.