Kasper Schmeichel saved an injury-time penalty to secure a priceless victory for City, as David Nugent’s winner took them into the npower Championship’s automatic promotion places.
Schmeichel repelled substitute Marvin Emnes’ spot-kick at the end of an enthralling encounter at King Power Stadium, as two of the division’s promotion hopefuls put on a defiant footballing exhibition in sub-zero conditions.
Nugent’s 13th-goal of the season, a brilliantly-taken half-volley from Chris Wood’s pass, ultimately settled it, but the significance of Schmeichel’s penalty save following Jamie Vardy’s trip on Rhys Williams was immeasurable.
Nigel Pearson’s men have often struggled to edge games of such fine margins this season, despite regularly dominating them. But Schmeichel’s intervention, and the galvanising response it drew from his team-mates, carried the hallmarks of a side emerging as a genuine front-runner in the race for the Premier League.
The falling snow that kept a large number of fans away from the stadium meant Boro only arrived an hour before the scheduled kick-off time. The start was delayed, but their preparations in the early stages appeared spot-on.
Aware of City’s penchant for attacking raids from the full-back positions, Tony Mowbray deployed Chelsea loanee Josh McEachran in a role made famous by Spain during their Euro 2012 win – the much discussed ‘false number nine’.
It effectively gave the visitors more bodies to spread across midfield when out of possession and it brought them some early joy. Scott McDonald wasted a couple of early chances, one in particular from close-range, as City’s midfield looked to get to grips with the sea of red shirts around them.
Pearson tweaked his formation to counter-act, resulting in Nugent drawing a save from Jason Steele after a profitable raid down the right flank.
And when Paul Konchesky’s driven pass was laid off expertly by Chris Wood into the path of Anthony Knockaert, the Frenchman left the frame of the goal shaking as his dipping shot bounced out off both the crossbar and the far post.
But Boro were unperturbed and continued to threaten. Williams made inroads down the right before Konchesky and Schmeichel snuffed him out.
McDonald worked Schmeichel with a fierce shot from distance, before the Dane frustrated Andre Bikey with a point-blank save from the Cameroonian’s close-range header.
Both sides were going for it by now and City went close twice before the break – firstly through Nugent, whose shot was batted away by Steele, and then through Michael Keane, who headed Wood’s chip against the crossbar from the resulting corner.
City’s ball retention after the break gave them a far greater threat and they were frustrated by the woodwork once more on 55 minutes – Konchesky’s cross headed against the foot of the post by Wood.
And they went one better soon afterwards, when Nugent turned De Laet’s cross-shot past Steele, but were this time denied by the offside flag.
Boro’s menace at the other end was waning and when City took the lead 20 minutes from time, few would have argued that they didn’t deserve it.
So often the foil during Wood’s purple patch of late, Nugent issued a reminder of his own prowess inside the box – latching onto his strike-partner’s flipped pass, taking it on deliberately early and hitting his half-volley on the up past the grasping Steele.
Nugent had the ball in the net again shortly afterwards, but was again denied by the flag, before the game started to get stretched. Substitute Lukas Jutkiewicz gave Leicester a different problem, as Lloyd Dyer did for Middlesbrough.
But it was Williams that appeared to have helped salvage something for the Teesside outfit, when he tumbled under Vardy’s mistimed challenge on 90 minutes.
Quite how significant Schmeichel’s save from Emnes will come to be may begin to unfold over the weekend.
But, for Friday night, if felt like it could potentially define a season.
City (4-4-2): Schmeichel; De Laet, Morgan (c), Keane, Konchesky; Knockaert (Dyer 76), James, Drinkwater, Marshall (King 81); Nugent (Vardy 83), Wood.
Unused subs: Logan, Waghorn, Gallagher, Moore.
Goals: Nugent 70
Booked: Konchesky, Keane
Middlesbrough (4-3-3): Steele; Hoyte (Thomson 21), Hines, Bikey, Friend; Williams, Leadbitter, Haroun; Ledesma, McEachran (Emnes 69), McDonald (Jutkiewicz 72).
Unused subs: Ripley, Reach, Bailey, Smallwood.
Referee: Roger East (Wiltshire)