Manchester City’s pursuit of a Champions League place remains intact with two matches remaining after they hung on desperately for a scrappy win.
As is often the case with this Pep Guardiola side, they coasted then lost their thread and have a Riyad Mahrez slip to thank for taking all three points and moving into third place.
Mahrez was brought down by Gaël Clichy for a 77th-minute penalty but slipped over while addressing the ball, kicking it on to his standing leg and technically taking two touches in the process. Robert Madley, the referee, correctly ruled out the finish past Willy Caballero, giving the home team a free-kick. “It is not normal to see it but it is what it is,” said Guardiola.
City need four points to guarantee a Champions League spot and next play on Tuesday at home to West Bromwich Albion. “The second half we didn’t know whether to attack or defend,” Guardiola said. “You have to understand how important it is for the club, fans, the players [a top-four finish].”
In the first half Madley did award City a goal after David Silva’s shot went past Kasper Schmeichel as Raheem Sterling stuck out a leg. The forward may have made contact and been marginally offside, standing ahead of Christian Fuchs. Schmeichel led the complaints to the referee, who allowed Silva’s effort to stand.
Craig Shakespeare, Leicester City’s manager, said: “Having seen the replay, I can see he is in an offside position.”
This was 29 minutes into the match and two more goals followed before the break. First City doubled their lead as Leroy Sané and Silva cut through the visitors’ defence before Yohan Benalouane scythed the young German down. Madley pointed to the spot and Gabriel Jesus converted.
It appeared the contest was over but Shakespeare’s side went in having pulled one back. Mahrez swept the ball left to Marc Albrighton, whose cross was volleyed beyond Caballero by Shinji Okazaki.
Guardiola had made no changes from the 5-0 rout of Crystal Palace here in the previous Saturday’s early kick-off while Shakespeare swapped Andy King for Danny Drinkwater and Ben Chilwell for Robert Huth from the 3-0 win against Watford later that day.
Guardiola, for the first time naming an unchanged side in the league, had said Leicester would again hope to hit City on the counter, as they did when beating them in December. An illustration came when Schmeichel pinged a quick clearance to Jamie Vardy and Clichy was forced to foul or the centre-forward would have been clear on Caballero.
Aside from their goal and a missed header from Wilfred Ndidi, this was about it for Leicester until the interval. Instead City camped round the visitors’ area as Sané, Silva, Jesus and Sterling terrorised them.
A Sané corner was mis-hit and came to Silva. The ball eventually returned to Sané and he skimmed in a cross that Chilwell scrambled away. Sterling took a ball from Yaya Touré, skinned Leicester’s defence and played in Clichy. The defender refused to use his right foot to shoot, found Sané instead and the ball was blasted over.
The lack of killer edge, which Guardiola constantly bemoans, was present again. How costly this might be was shown when Albrighton should have equalised in the second half from a Vardy pass. The winger mistimed the shot so City could breathe again, though they were now involved in a different contest from the one that had allowed them to go 2-0 up.
Their rhythm had been disrupted by a Leicester side who took up the fight and caused a concerned Guardiola to prowl the technical area. The Catalan’s stance is that more goals allow more comfortable defending and, when Sané motored down the left, a third goal seemed on the cards but there was no end product.
Next Albrighton received a shiner after Fernandinho jabbed an upper arm into him. Despite the obvious evidence of the City midfielder’s offence Madley gave a drop-ball, much to Leicester’s chagrin. Of this Shakespeare said: “We have looked at the replay and there is no intent from Fernandinho.” Later Albrighton piled into the Brazilian to exact retribution, for which he was booked.
By the end City had held on through seven minutes of added time. But this is the latest evidence that Guardiola has work to do in the close season.
• This article was amended on 15 May 2017 to remove the assertion that Manchester City are guaranteed a Champions League place if they beat West Bromwich Albion on Tuesday.