Manchester City survived a spirited Leicester City fightback to earn a thrilling 6-3 victory on Sunday, a ninth Premier League win in a row moving them six points clear the top of the table.

With second-placed Liverpool not in action after their clash with Leeds United was postponed due to Covid-19 cases at the Yorkshire club, City appeared out of sight midway through the first half at the Etihad Stadium.

The in-form champions raced into a fifth-minute lead through Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne, before a Riyad Mahrez penalty put the hosts in control nine minutes later.

Things went from bad to worse for a Leicester side struggling to replicate last season’s form, with Ilkay Gundogan and another penalty, converted by Raheem Sterling, giving the hosts a four-goal lead inside 25 minutes.

Despite looking dead and buried, Leicester stormed back in the second half as goals from James Maddison, Ademola Lookman and Kelechi Iheanacho threatened to derail the league leaders.

Aymeric Laporte’s 69th-minute header and Sterling’s late second took the champions over the line, however, as they moved on to 47 points, six clear of Liverpool, from 19 matches. Leicester dropped to 10th.

It is only the half-way stage but when the unofficial title of game of the season is awarded, this must be a contender. An extraordinary afternoon featured a devastating, dynamic start by Manchester City, who were four goals to the good in 25 minutes, and a remarkable comeback from Leicester, courtesy of a wonderful performance from James Maddison, in the highest-scoring top-flight Boxing Day match for three decades. “A rollercoaster,” said Pep Guardiola. “For everyone it was an entertaining game.”

It ended with his side registering a ninth successive win, going six points ahead of Liverpool as they took their tally to 17 goals in three matches. But if it appeared over with an hour remaining, instead it delivered drama to the last. City could be grateful to Aymeric Laporte for putting them 5-3 ahead, but still Leicester were not finished. They have lost their tendency to beat the Premier League’s best this season, but they showed they can still trouble them.

City, however, prevailed in part because of an outstanding start, extending their record to 35 top-flight wins in a calendar year because they overwhelmed a weakened Leicester side initially, when they brimmed with ambition and inventive movement, when they looked relentless and when, aided by spot kicks, Riyad Mahrez and Raheem Sterling extended their fine scoring runs. “He has been really good,” said Guardiola of Sterling.

Shorn of five injured defenders, Leicester made six changes and benched a semi-fit Jamie Vardy, but they could not protect a makeshift defence. “Clearly we didn’t make a great start,” said Leicester manager Brendan Rodgers. A fifth-minute opener was the reward for City’s early onslaught.

It came in lovely fashion, Fernandinho lofting a pass forward, the terrific Kevin de Bruyne turning away from Luke Thomas and drilling a shot past Kasper Schmeichel. Both assist and goal came their less favoured left feet. Ilkay Gundogan was the second midfielder to pop up in the box and score when could only palm Joao Cancelo’s low cross into his path.

It was sandwiched by two spot kicks, on a chastening day for Youri Tielemans. Mahrez rifled a penalty into the roof of the net, defeating his former teammate Schmeichel, after Tielemans wrested Laporte to the ground. Initially unconvinced, referee Christopher Kavanagh gave the penalty after viewing the incident again on a monitor. “Nowhere near a penalty,” complained Rodgers, but then Tielemans tripped Sterling. The latter assumed penalty-taking duties and struck home. “The quality of players we have produced this amount of actions to score goals,” Guardiola said.

But for brilliant saves by Schmeichel to deny Sterling and Gundogan a second, it would have been five by half-time. “We are a team that never unravel mentally and physically and that would be an easy thing to do, but the players showed an incredible spirit and played some great football,” added Rodgers.

Leicester mounted a brilliant fightback. Maddison struck after glorious touches took him past Laporte and Ruben Dias, he traded passes with Kelechi Iheanacho and slotted a shot past Ederson. “James in particular was outstanding for us, with his quality on the ball, his work rate, his creativity,” Rodgers said.

Maddison’s weaving run led to Leicester’s second. Iheanacho got another assist and Ademola Lookman struck. Ederson had tipped a first-half spectacular effort from Maddison on to the bar. When he did again after the break, Leicester got a reward: it fell obligingly for Iheanacho to score against his old club. “They are a master of counter-attacks,” Guardiola added.

Leicester were twice close to a fourth, Iheanacho having a shot saved and Marc Albrighton heading wide. “We had two really good chances,” rued Rodgers. Instead, Leicester’s set-piece problems cost them; they could have done when Daniel Amartey deflected Fernandinho’s header on to the bar. Instead, Laporte headed in Mahrez’s corner and Sterling got his fifth in four games when Dias met the Algerian’s delivery. Rodgers concluded: “The disappointment is conceding two set-pieces and two penalties.”