Danny Drinkwater, Jamie Vardy and Leonardo Ulloa were on the scoresheet as Leicester returned to the top of the Premier League with a 3-0 victory over Stoke at the King Power Stadium.
The doubting voices were beginning to increase in volume and number as Claudio Ranieri’s side stuttered, winning only one of their previous five league games – and seven in all competitions.
But after Drinkwater’s volley broke the stalemate shortly before half-time and Vardy rounded Stoke goalkeeper Jack Butland to slot home his first goal in seven Premier League matches, the King Power Stadium was bouncing to the tune of “We’re all going on a European tour”.
And the Foxes faithful might be right. Leicester, temporarily at least ahead of Manchester City’s game at West Ham on Saturday evening and Arsenal’s clash with Chelsea on Sunday, went three points clear at the top of the table and 12 in front of the sixth-placed Hammers.
It would take a shocking collapse for Ranieri’s men not to be competing in Europe – after a 16-year absence – next season.
Substitute Ulloa stabbed home a third goal late on to seal a vital victory, with Leicester’s next three league games being Liverpool, Manchester City and Arsenal.
The two teams had cancelled each other out until the 18th minute when there was a chance at either end.
First Jonathan Walters got in on goal, although it was only a half chance for the Republic of Ireland striker, with a run behind Wes Morgan but he could not get the ball under control and Kasper Schmeichel raced towards the penalty spot to gather.
Leicester immediately counter-attacked and Marc Albrighton’s low, whipped ball in from the left was swept goalwards by Vardy and Butland spilled his shot before a defender cleared the danger. From the resulting corner Riyad Mahrez sent a volley narrowly wide.
There was a brilliant piece of defending by Danny Simpson in the 27th minute. Mame Diouf looked certain to head home Xherdan Shaqiri’s lovely floated cross at the far post but Simpson strained every sinew to get the first touch on the ball and divert it behind to keep the game goalless.
It looked like it would remain that way at the break but Drinkwater drove home a volley from the edge of the penalty area.
Leicester had caused Stoke problems with corners throughout the first half and when Philipp Wollscheid, falling to the ground, could not get enough purchase on his header to clear the ball sufficiently, Drinkwater smashed it back with interest into the bottom corner of the net.
Schmeichel was alert when called on to make his first real save of the game just after the hour, batting away Joselu’s header to preserve Leicester’s lead.
It proved decisive as shortly afterwards Vardy latched on to Drinkwater’s knock over the top, calmly went round the advancing Butland and guided the ball into the back of the net from a tight angle for his first goal since December 14.
It had been a tight game but now Leicester looked like they could create chances at will. Vardy, Mahrez and Albrighton all threatened before Mahrez crossed for sub Ulloa to poke in from close range with three minutes remaining.