Manchester City closed to a point behind Leicester in second place after sinking them with a display that became better as this contest aged.
The champions’ perseverance should be applauded because they are not the force they were. Instead City have to scrap more to achieve victory and until finally pulling away Leicester might have nicked a point, at least.
Pep Guardiola made two changes from Sunday’s win at Arsenal, Rodri and Phil Foden replaced by Riyad Mahrez and Bernardo Silva, with Brendan Rodgers following suit: Harvey Barnes and Ayoze Pérez coming in for Dennis Praet and Kelechi Iheanacho.
In an attractive opening half City’s attacking intent was illustrated when Benjamin Mendy found Kevin De Bruyne, who sprinted from halfway before finding Raheem Sterling. The forward is quick yet Jonny Evans stayed with him and was able to kill the danger inside his area.
Next, Mahrez was found by a smart De Bruyne pass and the Algerian’s attempt hit Caglar Soyuncu: there was shout for a penalty for handball but Mike Dean, the referee, was unmoved.
De Bruyne has recently produced the best from his stellar talent and the latest vignette was a blistering effort that beat Kasper Schmeichel but not the visiting goalkeeper’s left post. Mahrez, too, has sparkled of late and some dizzying footwork made a mug of Ben Chilwell and his pull-back from near goal to Gabriel Jesus deserved to have the opener complement it but Jesus somehow missed.
City’s ongoing weakness is their defence. When Youri Tielemans flipped a pass into Jamie Vardy the centre-forward raced down the right, left Nicolas Otamendi a spectator, but on crossing no teammate had made a supporting run.
Vardy was about to show how. His strike was clinical. City were on the front foot yet Chilwell nicked the ball and fed Harvey Barnes. Barnes decorated the contest with a superb pass along the left that had Vardy in behind Fernandinho.
This classic Leicester move was about to have the coup de grace: the striker hit sixth gear and headed for Ederson and when the goalkeeper decided – a fraction late – to rush out Vardy dinked over him and in for a 17th league goal.
Cue Guardiola rubbing his face in despair and Rodgers and his bench celebrating. Vardy nearly repeated the trick with a similar move that ended with him hitting a rising effort.
City have no issue at the opposition end. So it proved when more slick-and-quick play ended with Mahrez firing the equaliser – via a Soyuncu deflection. The Turk was booked after felling De Bruyne and when Mahrez’s subsequent free-kick from the right lacked curve to beat Schmeichel he could breathe relief.
The opposite emotion was about to be felt by the visitors. Sterling collected in the area and nipped inside Ricardo Pereira and was fouled. Dean pointed to the spot and Ilkay Gündogan executed the penalty expertly.
Their porous defence meant City’s best hope was to take the match to Leicester when possible. Yet the lack of dominance that has been the tale of their season was again evident. The City of the past two campaigns have often enjoyed a clear supremacy. Not so this term and not so this time. They were enjoying more possession but Leicester were still a threat.
A scuffed Mahrez shot that dribbled to Schmeichel was indicative of one reason – slipshod finishing – why City have not been the force they were. So, too, when Sterling and Jesus were each blocked off when they might have secured a third.
The pattern continued: Mahrez failed to finish again, De Bruyne deliberated when he should have smashed the ball at goal and Jesus and Sterling could not close the deal. This was all nearly costly when a Vardy burst was followed with a cross that Barnes came close to finishing.
At last a cutting edge was found. De Bruyne, who would hobble off in the final minute, slalomed through and delivered a ball that Jesus finished.
This gave City the comfort of a two-goal lead and the match was as good as over.
When Vardy got in again he may not have scored but City were again reminded of their instability.