Another loss, but against the Championship champions-in-waiting, Sunderland showed far more resilience, aggression and purpose on Tuesday evening than we’d done against Stoke as we slumped to defeat in the Potteries on Saturday afternoon.
Yes, it was a third consecutive defeat in the league, a result that dropped us to outside of the playoff places, but Leicester are easily the best team we’ve faced since our return to the Championship, so perhaps a little bit of context is needed as well.
After getting his selection and tactics wrong during Saturday’s defeat, Tony Mowbray brought the oft-criticised Mason Burstow back into the starting eleven and also reunited Dan Neil and Pierre Ekwah in what’s undoubtedly our first choice midfield pairing.
Elsewhere, Dennis Cirkin was deemed fit enough for a spot on the bench as the defender continues his latest comeback from injury, and he was joined by Nazariy Rusyn and Hemir, despite many fans clamouring for the Ukrainian to start.
Leicester’s team, meanwhile, was exactly what you’d expect, featuring a wealth of quality right across the park and on the bench, but the big question was whether we could show a more positive attitude than had clearly been the case at the Bet365 Stadium.
Immediately from kick off, a free kick went our way after a foul on Burstow, but the delivery from Patrick Roberts came to nothing. Shortly thereafter, a raking pass from Ekwah almost found Roberts on the right, but the danger was intercepted before anything could come of it.
The first real chance came when Clarke found space inside the Leicester box after some intricate play on the right, but his firm shot was well blocked by Mads Hermansen when you expected him to bury it.
It had been an encouraging start, with far more positivity and aggression in our play and the Lads showing absolutely no signs of being overawed by the Foxes.
Unfortunately, the optimism didn’t last long as Leicester began to gain a foothold and after a sloppy corner was conceded, James Justin rose highest to head home from a Kiernan Dewsbury-Hall outswinger, with our defence caught flat-footed.
The ongoing weakness from set pieces had been exploited once again, and it was another early setback.
In fairness, we did respond quite well as Dan Neil whipped a speculative shot beyond the far post, and this was suddenly a real test, especially when Stephy Mavididi’s powerful shot was diverted off Anthony Patterson’s shin and against the post. Could we keep our heads up and ensure that the game didn’t run away from us?
As the half unfolded, there was no loss of morale and we refused to crumble, which was a far cry from what had unfolded three days earlier.
Another decent chance came when Neil was fouled by Harry Winks after a neat turn, but Roberts fired the resulting free kick straight into the wall. A few minutes later, Hermansen had to be alert when Clarke cut inside and took aim, and Jobe Bellingham then mistimed his leap when in a promising position.
Towards the end of the half, we also had a strong penalty claim when Neil was brought down by Wout Faes, but it didn’t go our way.
We were firmly in the game, the performance had been encouraging, and as the second half kicked off, it felt as though there would be further chances for us to get back on level terms.
As the game recommenced, Roberts embarked on a jinking run but was swarmed by Leicester defenders before he could get a shot away, and a firm, perfectly-timed challenge from Luke O’Nien stopped Mavididi in his tracks as the Foxes tried to mount a counter attack.
Seconds later, Cesare Casadei seemed certain to make it 2-0 after a poor defensive header from Niall Huggins, but the outstretched foot of Patterson denied him before he dived at full stretch to deny the Chelsea loanee once again.
The game was becoming fraught and increasingly peppered with niggly fouls but we were holding our own and certainly not being outgunned.
The constant willingness to drive forward was miles away from the tepid display against Stoke, and the application (if not the execution) was superb, with Roberts in particular a constant menace, albeit without finding the finishing touch that his buildup play deserved.
With half an hour left, Mowbray turned to the bench.
Abdoullah Ba, Chris Rigg and Dennis Cirkin entered the fray as he sought an injection of fresh legs and the added spark from Ba as we continued to press for an equaliser.
Chances kept coming as the game started to wind down, the best of which came when Ba somehow missed the target when the ball broke to him in a promising position. In the end, however, we couldn’t quite find the equaliser and the Foxes bandwagon rolled on.
Despite the loss, there were some positives to take from this game.
Patterson’s performance was excellent, Dan Ballard was his usual reliable self, and Rigg looked extremely comfortable after being brought on. On the other hand, the lack of goals from our strikers is a glaring issue (Hemir must surely start against Norwich on Saturday) and our habit of switching off at set pieces needs to be addressed hastily.
Saturday’s game is significant, as a win would give everyone a huge boost, but a loss would doubtless lead to more questions and more recriminations.
We’re in a rut at this stage, but we’ve emerged from similar spells before and recovered impressively, and there’s no doubt that we have the talent to do so again, and that needs to start against the Canaries next time out.