Okazaki scored the only goal of the match 25 minutes in with a bicycle kick. Leicester regains its five-point lead at the top of the Premier League with eight matches remaining.
For a team in new, dizzying territory Leicester City are doing a fine job of showing they can enjoy the view from the top of the Premier League without suffering a debilitating bout of vertigo. This might not rank among the more distinguished performances of an almost implausible season but every team who win the championship stack up a few stodgy 1-0 victories and the upshot is that Claudio Ranieri’s side have re-established a five-point lead with eight games to go.
Leicester have certainly passed the ball with more authority and penetration this season and for large parts of the second half a nervous crowd was longing for the final whistle. Yet even when the Premier League leaders were struggling for their usual fluency, with their star players becoming increasingly peripheral and an anxious Ranieri waving his arms to demand more from his team, there were signs of the stubbornness that will be essential if they are to maintain this position.
In their past seven home games they have now kept six clean sheets. Newcastle United’s players looked eager to impress Rafael Benítez in his first match as manager but Leicester’s defence, superbly marshalled by Robert Huth and Wes Morgan, formed an impenetrable barrier in front of Kasper Schmeichel. The goal came from their only shot on target – a wonderful piece of improvisation from Shinji Okazaki – and this was their third 1-0 win in their past four games. Nervous as Leicester appeared at times, they still had enough to grind out an unspectacular yet crucial win.
In the process they made it a losing start for Benítez on a night that demonstrated why his team have found goals so elusive this season. Benítez has inherited a side who have managed only eight in their past 21 away games, failing to score in 14 of them, and, though there were half-chances for Aleksandar Mitrovic, Jack Colback and Moussa Sissoko, they were unable to conjure up a really presentable opportunity all night. If Newcastle are to avoid dropping into the Championship it is clear the first area of improvement has to be their attack.
Benítez’s arrival certainly seemed to have sharpened a few minds judging by the way a team entrenched in relegation danger matched Leicester for long spells, no matter the 39-point difference that now exists between the two sides. Newcastle’s fans never sang Steve McClaren’s name but Benítez was loudly serenaded by the away end and his team showed a new-found confidence until the game ticked into the 25th minute and Okazaki decided it was time to add some stardust to the occasion.
Okazaki, a bustling, eager player with a licence to roam, may not always catch the eye in the same way as Jamie Vardy or Riyad Mahrez but the Japan international has also shown his own capacity for unsettling defences and this was a perfectly executed overhead kick. Newcastle had failed to clear a free-kick and when Marc Albrighton clipped another cross into the penalty area Steven Taylor, stretching to head the ball, could only knock it to the far post. Vardy was there to head it across and Okazaki, showing great anticipation and technique, launched himself into the air to score with an acrobatic finish.
Vardy had been marginally offside as he outjumped Colback but every successful team needs a slice of good fortune and for the rest of the first half Leicester looked more like their usual selves, attacking in numbers and causing problems with their speed and directness. Albrighton came close to adding a second barely three minutes after Okazaki’s goal and perhaps they would have been able to relax if his curling shot had not drifted beyond the far post. Vardy and Okazaki were difficult, elusive opponents in the first half and, every so often, there was a reminder of Mahrez’s soft-touch refinement.
Newcastle, however, did not crumple in the way that had become the hallmark of McClaren’s teams and as the game wore on their opponents started to retreat. The problem for Newcastle was their attacks had a tendency to break down on the edge of the penalty area. Mitrovic often found himself up against both Huth and Morgan and there were not enough times when the visiting midfielders took a risk and tried to run behind the home defence. It was rare to see a team have so much of the ball yet create so little.
For Leicester the second half was about keeping their structure, not panicking and getting through. Danny Drinkwater has been outstanding this season but this was not one of his better nights and it was unusual to see Leicester’s more penetrative players have so little effect after the break. Vardy and Mahrez seldom threatened and Albrighton and Okazaki were taken off. Ranieri was clearly alarmed judging by the way he started gesturing to his team, then signalling to the crowd he wanted more noise.
Newcastle might have had a late penalty when Morgan jutted out an elbow to block Sissoko’s shot but, equally, Leicester though they could have had one of their own in the first half when Vardy went down under Daryl Janmaat’s challenge. In Newcastle’s position, second from bottom of the league, a late onslaught might have been anticipated. It never happened and, at the final whistle, there was a burst of relief from the home crowd. “We’re going to win the league,” they sang.