JAMIE Vardy’s double edged Leicester ever closer to the Barclays Premier League title as Sunderland’s survival hopes suffered a major blow.
Sunderland - 0
Leicester - 2
Vardy 66, 90
Vardy’s 66th-minute and stoppage-time strikes – his 20th and 21st of the season and his first in seven games for his club – secured three hard-fought points at the Stadium of Light on a day when the home side grudgingly surrendered a four-game unbeaten run in front of a crowd of 46,531.
Indeed, it might have been very different had Foxes goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel not managed to react in the nick of time to keep out Fabio Borini’s deflected shot as the first half drew to a close.
Claudio Ranieri’s men will head into this Sunday’s home clash with West Ham knowing their fate remains firmly in their own hands, while Sam Allardyce will send out his team at Norwich the previous day acutely aware that defeat there could prove all but fatal.
Leicester midfielder Danny Drinkwater said there is still work to be done, but his facial expression suggested the Foxes players now believe the title is theirs to lose. “We’ve got a few games left. It’s a step but a very big one,” he said.
Ranieri was a little more guarded. “The fans must continue to dream but we must continue to be concentrated and focused,” said the Italian.
“Now we have two tough matches at home, the Champions League is on the table and we have to keep it. We haven’t achieved anything yet.”
The game kicked off with 42 points separating the sides, with the Foxes looking to seal the most unlikely of title charges and the Black Cats desperately seeking a fourth successive great escape, but there was little to choose between them in a high-octane first half.
The visitors started on the front foot as Sunderland defender Younes Kaboul found himself under intense pressure from front two Vardy and Shinji Okazaki, with the England international heading wastefully wide after meeting Danny Simpson’s inviting 12th-minute cross.
Captain Wes Morgan was equally profligate three minutes later after being picked out from a corner by Christian Fuchs, but as the home side settled, it was they who started to make an impact.
Borini fired into the side-netting after taking a poor first touch from Jan Kirchhoff’s through ball, and Kaboul powered a header over from the influential Wahbi Khazri’s 35th-minute cross.
Both teams had penalty appeals waved away, Sunderland after Patrick van Aanholt’s cross struck Robert Huth’s arm as he slid in and the visitors when Riyad Mahrez’s shot thumped into Kaboul’s elbow.
Allardyce’s men very nearly snatched the lead two minutes into stoppage time at the end of the first half. Borini found space on the right side of the penalty area and drilled in a shot which momentarily wrong-footed Schmeichel after clipping Morgan, but the goalkeeper did well to block with his legs.
Leicester got their noses in front with 24 minutes remaining when, for once, Kaboul lost Vardy as he set off in pursuit of Drinkwater’s long ball, and his finish was unerring.
Substitute Jack Rodwell passed up a glorious opportunity to level with eight minutes remaining after Van Aanholt’s shot had been blocked into his path ten yards out, and although Vardy missed one chance to wrap up the win at the death from Drinkwater’s pull-back, he did so deep into stoppage time as he out-muscled Van Aanholt and rounded Vito Mannone before steering the ball into the empty net.
It leaves Sunderland with a battle on their hands to stay in the top flight. “I can’t accept how we conceded the first goal,” said Allardyce.
“We allowed Jamie Vardy to play to his strengths. One ball over the top, not coping with that was the reason why we lost today.”