Sunderland 0 Leicester City 2
As the final whistle blew, half the pitch remained bathed in glorious spring sunshine but the rest was shrouded in deep shadow. On a day when hope and fear collided, when Leicester City moved within touching distance of a most unexpected title and Sunderland were shoved a step near to relegation, it seemed a wholly appropriate image.
Claudio Ranieri's side were far from at their best and, for lengthy periods, Sam Allardyce's team held their own and played quite well but Leicester possessed Jamie Vardy and his two goals were sufficient to at least preserve that formidable lead over Tottenham Hotspur at the top of the table. For Sunderland, everything now surely hinges on their trip to Norwich City on Saturday.
For a team that were supposed to have come over all defensive in the past few weeks, Leicester began in startlingly high-tempo mode. Very much on the front foot, they seemed on a mission to collect three points and it took some last-ditch interceptions and wince-inducing challenges on Sunderland’s part to keep them at bay.
For a while, it seemed a question of when, not if, Sam Allardyce's side conceded but then, almost imperceptibly, Jan Kirchhoff began making his presence felt in central midfield. At 6ft 5in Kirchhoff casts quite a shadow and, at times, even N'Golo Kanté found himself in the unusual position of being eclipsed by the German. With Yann M'Vila and Lee Cattermole also ever ready to snap into tackles, Kanté and Danny Drinkwater certainly had their work cut out.
Cattermole – once again preferred to Jack Rodwell – made a couple of vital interventions, most notably to deny the strangely anonymous Riyad Mahrez as Ranieri's prize creator accelerated down the right and prepared to cut inside with menacing intent.
If Wahbi Khazri and Jermain Defoe were starting to disconcert Leicester's defence a little, some slapdash concessions of possession saw Sunderland in real danger of coming undone at the hands of a few hallmark visiting counterattacks. That they did not was testimony to the central defensive solidity of Lamine Koné and the excellent Younès Kaboul. The latter, a former Tottenham Hotspur defender, was making a pretty good job of keeping Jamie Vardy quiet while ensuring Vito Mannone did not need to make a single serious save during the first half.
With Kasper Schmeichel equally underemployed – at least until the brink of half time – it was turning into a day where the fascination of an absorbing, sometimes high-quality, game lay largely in the assorted midfield sub-plots. Most notable among them was Kanté's efforts to re-impose himself on proceedings. That said, on another afternoon, and with another referee, Leicester might – just might – have been awarded a penalty following DeAndre Yedlin's foul on Shinji Okazaki.
Mahrez – uncharacteristically giving the ball away far too easily on too many occasions and apparently rather anxious to avoid having his ankles bitten by Cattermole – demanded another penalty when his shot struck Kaboul's arm but Anthony Taylor, quite rightly, refused to buy it. Indeed Sunderland had a much better looking penalty claim of their own after Robert Huth appear to handball a Patrick van Aanholt cross the lurking Defoe had looked well placed to connect with. Leicester though seem strangely immune to conceding penalties this spring. Might referees be secretly, subconsciously, rooting for Ranieri's players?
Much to Allardyce's chagrin, Taylor was not persuaded and his side suffered further disappointed when Fabio Borini met Defoe's pass only to see his shot deflect off Wes Morgan before Schmeichel, finally called to arms, saved smartly.
So much of the shooting had been off target it came as no shock to see the second half begin with scuffed or wayward strikes from Borini (three times), Yedlin, Okazaki and Khazri. Eventually, with almost an hour gone, Mannone was finally required to make a save, the Italian diving to smother Drinkwater’s fairly benign shot after Mahrez had woken up sufficiently to sell Van Aanholt a clever dummy.
Seeking to change the narrative Ranieri replaced Okazaki with Leonardo Ulloa but his cause was about to be assisted by an all too typical moment of self-destruction on Sunderland's part. With minds and bodies perhaps tiring, Allardyce's players lost concentration as Drinkwater launched a long, looping, simple ball forward. Having flown over the home defence it was met by the rapidly advancing Vardy who, with the helpless Kaboul for once trailing in his wake, beat Mannone with a ruthlessly incisive shot into the bottom corner dispatched from an awkward angle.
It was Vardy’s 20th Premier League goal of an extraordinary season. Allardyce responded by replacing first Khazri and M’Vila with Dame N’Doye and Jack Rodwell and then Borini with Jeremain Lens. The unmarked Rodwell really should have equalised but, instead, contrived to sidefoot the ball over the bar from eight yards after a shot had been deflected into his path. With time seeming to stand still – and no one closed him down – Rodwell appeared to freeze and then panic. When the music stops next month that could come to be regarded as a very big miss.
Almost immediately Leicester might have extended their lead but Mannone reacted well to save Ulloa’s attempted dink following Kanté’s through pass. The goalkeeper was stranded in stoppage time though. As Vardy sped past Van Aanholt Mannone raced off his line only to be dodged by a striker who gleefully passed the ball into the empty net.
Tottenham really have their work cut out now – and so, too, do Sunderland.