Leicester City 2
AT 33, Tony Cottee's predatory instincts remain sharply intact. That much was made painfully evident to Sunderland last night. As one of the Foxes who had the First Division leaders on the run, Cottee pounced twice to leave Leicester City contemplating a return to Wembley for the Worthington Cup final in March.
Though Gavin McCann halved the deficit Sunderland will face in the second leg of the semi-final, on last night's evidence the Wearsiders will also have to overcome a class gap at Filbert Street on 17 February. The difference between the two sides last night was much more than the cutting edge of Cottee's finishing.
In becoming the first Premiership side to win at the Stadium of Light, Leicester outclassed their hosts. It must have been sobering for the locals to recall that when Sunderland secured their last promotion, three years ago, they did so ahead of Martin O'Neill's team.
Leicester have won the League Cup, played in Europe and established themselves as mid-table members of the Premiership since then, though they did not exactly arrive on Wearside brimming with confidence, having conceded nine goals in their previous two matches.
To solve the case of his side's missing form, O'Neill turned to Taggart - and to Cottee too. While Gerry Taggart was restored to the heart of the defence, Cottee returned after injury to partner Emile Heskey in attack.
The changes had the desired effect, Leicester taking control from the start. With Muzzy Izzet and Neil Lennon dictating the midfield flow and Sunderland's wide men, Allan Johnston and McCann, both double marked, Leicester reduced their hosts to a shadow of their normal all-out attacking selves.
Niall Quinn did have one glorious chance, but Kasey Keller had all angles covered when the Irishman bore down on his goal from the right after being put clear by Chris Makin.
A half-chance was all Cottee required to give his side the lead they deserved on the half-hour. From the right edge of the six-yard box, the one-time England man beat Thomas Sorensen with a deftly angled first- time shot, courtesy of Frank Sinclair's low cross from the right. It was Cottee's 261st goal in English football - and it could have been followed by a second for Leicester before half-time.
Sorensen, who did well to keep out a swerving Matt Elliott free-kick early in the game, came to his side's rescue again, stretching to tip over Izzet's goal-bound header after a curling Steve Guppy cross from the left. After 61 minutes, though, Sunderland's Danish keeper was beaten for a second time.
In attempting to clear an Izzet drive, Andy Melville merely succeeded in diverting the ball to Cottee, who curled it past Sorensen from 20 yards out. At that stage there seemed little point in Sunderland even turning up for the second leg, but McCann gave them a glimmer of hope with 15 minutes remaining.
The former Everton midfielder dispatched a right-foot free-kick from wide on the left and, with a combination of curl and bounce, it eluded Keller's grasp. In truth, it was more than Sunderland's efforts deserved, though Peter Reid was grateful for it. "It's given us a lifeline," the Sunderland manager said. "We're still in the tie."
O'Neill was keen to agree. "We're obviously happy with the result," he said, "but we write off Sunderland and Peter Reid at our peril. Everything's still to play for."
Having lost twice in four days to Premiership opposition, though, playing for pride will be top of Sunderland's agenda at Filbert Street.
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Butler, Melville, Gray; McCann, Ball, Clark (Smith, 65), Johnston (Summerbee, 65); Quinn, Phillips. Substitutes not used: Craddock, Dichio, Marriott (gk).
Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Elliott, Taggart, Walsh; Sinclair (Kaamark, 62), Izzet, Lennon, Ullathorne, Guppy; Cottee, Heskey (Wilson, 59). Substitutes not used: Parker, Zagorakis, Arphexad (gk).
Referee: G Barber (Surrey).
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