Will there be a wobble? The assumption has been since about November that Leicester would fade away, or at the very least stumble as they approach the line, but if anything they’ve simply become more resolute, keeping 10 clean sheets in their last 14 matches. They’ve won five of their last six games 1-0, giving them a seven-point lead over their nearest challengers, Tottenham. Sunderland continue to struggle in third bottom, now four pojnts behind Norwich although with a game in hand. They’ve had the upper hand in each of their last four games – had the lead in three of them – but ended up drawing all of them. That could be taken two ways: their form is improving, but they can’t keep wasting opportunities to win games. The 0-0 draw against West Bromwich Albion last Saturday at least brought a clean sheet – just their fourth of the season.
Leicester won 4-2 when the sides met on the opening day of the season and it says much for how the season’s gone that while Leicester are likely to field eight of the side that started that game, there will probably only be four survivors from Sunderland, one of them Lee Cattermole who was taken off after half an hour at the KingPower with Sunderland already 3-0 down.
VARDY AND MAHREZ
Such matters are relative, but there is a slight sense of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez slowing down; nobody, after all, can be in absolutely peak form all season. Mahrez looked tired when he was substituted against Southampton on Sunday, while Vardy has scored just four goals in his last 17 games for Leicester, one of them a penalty. Sunderland naturally sit deep which, while it may offer room to Mahrez, who could cause chaos behind Patrick van Aanholt’s forward surges, is the best way to combat Vardy’s rapid surges.
GETTING ROUND LEICESTER’S BACK FOUR
Neither Danny Simpson nor Christian Fuchs are particularly adventurous, both playing very narrow, encouraging opponents to put crosses into the box where Robert Huth and Wes Morgan can mop up.
Sunderland do offer a threat from wide, with Wahbi Khazri on the right and Van Aanholt overlapping on the left, but their best hope may be simply to get the ball in the box and hope that something drops for either Jermain Defoe or Fabio Borini. Both are fine finishers (not that either showed it against West Brom), both adept at finding slivers of space where none should occur. And there’s always Dame N’Doye to come off the bench and offer a physical threat. It’s not an ideal way to play, but the team that has most troubled Leicester recently is West Brom, who kept it tight and looked to pounce of half-chances.
It’s true that West Brom benefited from the shooting ability of Craig Gardner, and Sunderland have nobody with his long-range ability, and that West Brom have been rather tighter defensively than Sunderland, but there is a glimmer of a way through.
Leicester have a clear edge in wide areas, but in the centre there is some reason for hope for Sunderland. Jan Kirchoff sits very deep, and will pick up Okazaki or Ulloa when they drop off, which should enable Lee Cattermole and Yann M’Vila to press tight on N’Golo Kante and Danny Drinkwater. There’s an odd inversion of the usual polarities here as Leicester face a side that will be looking to stop them playing rather than the other way round.
Leicester are an understandable favourite and there may be some value in backing them at 2.15. But this feels like a tight, cagey game and, given Sunderland’s recent improvement, the psychological aspect is worth considering. Leicester may feel this is a game they should be winning and that is not when they are at their best – as the scratchy 1-0 win over Newcastle suggested. So far, they’ve had an individual to find them a winner in tight games – Mahrez’s strike at Watford, the Okazaki overhead against Newcastle, and the Wes Morgan header against Southampton – but there’s no reason that should continue forever.
Sunderland could frustrate them, which makes the 2.00 on Sunderland +0.25 appealing, or, for something more adventurous, Sunderland to win 1-0 at 9.50.