The first of "five cup finals", as David O'Leary billed their run-in, brought Leeds only their fourth victory yesterday since they stormed the Premiership summit on New Year's Day, but may also have served to remind their followers why they have fared so modestly in knock-out competition in recent seasons.
True, Leeds were worthy winners, even if their breakthrough came through an early own goal by Sunderland's Jody Craddock and their second arrived late in the game from the substitute Robbie Keane. But in edging to within three points of fourth-placed Chelsea, Leeds did little to suggest that they believe they can still reach the Champions' League.
Sunderland, who last won at Leeds 41 years ago, remain in slight danger of relegation. However, a deceptively reasonable start to the season, during which they became the first team to lower Leeds' colours last November, allied to the haplessness of Ipswich and Derby, means that Peter Reid's side will probably avoid the drop by default.
With the sun beating down, there was an end-of-season atmosphere about the occasion. Good practice, it was tempting to suggest, for those July dates in West Yorkshire with Lithuanian or Armenian opposition in the Intertoto Cup.
The end of the season, of course, is when we shall learn the true worth of Sven Goran Eriksson. The ubiquitous England manager, returning to the scene of his team's recent defeat by Italy, at least witnessed two performances to give him food for thought ahead of the World Cup finals.
Lee Bowyer, having signalled his return to form with a goal and a fine assist against Manchester United, displayed the industry and dynamism which explained why Eriksson was once keen to give him his full international debut. Despite his being acquitted on all charges in the trial of himself and Jonathan Woodgate, the Football Association would almost certainly be against his inclusion. Yet there are few midfielders more adept at breaking beyond the forwards.
Alan Smith, pointedly omitted from Eriksson's last squad and asked to play for the Under-21s, was one of the few other home players to rise above the mundanity. Again deputed to an unfamiliar role on the right of midfield, Smith ran George McCartney ragged, especially during the first half, and it was from one of his teasing crosses that Leeds gained the lead.
Their first attack had culminated in David Batty's bi-annual shot on goal, which Thomas Sorensen held. But Smith was already exploiting McCartney's unease as stand-in for Michael Gray, and in their next raid, his low, curling centre found Craddock, who was under pressure from Mark Viduka near the penalty spot, sticking out a foot to send the ball looping over Sorensen.
The Leeds of last season would have swarmed forward in pursuit of a second goal. As has so often been the case during the current, crisis-torn campaign, they were unconvincing in their attempts to finish off Sunderland. Robbie Fowler might have had a hat-trick in the space of eight minutes from chances Bowyer helped to create, but the £11m striker's finishing touch deserted him.
Sunderland took time to realise the extent of the lethargy afflicting Leeds. Kevin Phillips, now a peripheral figure with England, sent one volley narrowly wide before succumbing to a stomach-muscle strain. The visitors did not make the most of the error-prone contribution of one of Eriksson's apparent summer certainties, Danny Mills, failing to feed Kevin Kilbane when the Irish winger clearly had the beating of him.
If the first 45 minutes was sloppy, the second was soporific until Bowyer became distracted by a personal spat with Jason McAteer and Sunderland scented a reward. The warning signs were there for Leeds when Nigel Martyn clawed a Kilbane cross from under the bar, while Patrick Mboma should have equalised after rounding Dominic Matteo, only to blaze the ball over the bar.
Instead, Leeds wrapped up the points two minutes later. Mark Viduka, having come out of his shell to set up Bowyer for what would have been a deserved goal but for a textbook sliding challenge by Joachim Bjorklund, promptly provided the same service for Keane. The Irishman dispatched his first League goal since September with an aplomb otherwise conspicuous by its absence from the match.
Goals: Craddock og (8) 1-0; Keane (83) 2-0.
Leeds United (4-3-3): Martyn 6; Mills 3, Woodgate 7, Matteo 4, Harte 4; Smith 7, Batty 6, Bowyer 8, Bakke 4; Smith 7, Fowler 4 (Keane 6, 61), Viduka 6. Substitutes not used: Kelly, Wilcox, Johnson, Robinson (gk).
Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen 6; Williams 4 (Bellion, 79), Bjorklund 5, Craddock 5, McCartney 3; McAteer 5, Reyna 7, McCann 6, Kilbane 6; Phillips 4 (Mboma 4, h-t), Quinn 5. Substitutes not used: Thirlwell, Butler, Macho (gk).
Referee: P Jones (Loughborough) 6.
Bookings: Leeds Bowyer, Batty. Sunderland McCann.
Man of the match: Bowyer.
Attendance: 39,195.Reuse content