This was the Tigers’ 10th victory in their last 11 games in all competitions since their World Cup contingent returned.
After finding themselves in the lower reaches of the table in the early part of this campaign, the Midlands club climbed into fourth on the back of this result.
Over the line: Geordan Murphy scores Leicester's second try
Their director of rugby, Richard Cockerill, admitted that the title is a realistic target again, but he wasn’t entirely satisfied.
In fact he was fuming, and referee Andrew Small realised as much when the former England hooker offered him some choice feedback moments after Sale had seized a deserved losing bonus point courtesy of Nick Macleod’s last-minute drop goal.
This had been a compelling contest, in front of a near sell-out crowd, but Cockerill was furious with what he called the ‘farce’ at the breakdown, where Sale’s replacement openside flanker, Kiwi Onosa’i Auva’a, caused Leicester no end of problems.
‘Today, the negative side got the reward, and the side trying to play didn’t,’ he said.
‘It’s disappointing because we get labelled as boring and cynical but we’re trying to play. The breakdown today was an absolute farce.
'If you get away with lying around at the back of rucks, you are going to stay there. They were lying around at the back of the breakdown the whole time.’
Attritional battle: Leicester's Ed Slater attempts to punch through the Sharks defence
Asked what words of wisdom he had uttered in Small’s ear, Cockerill added: ‘I just said, “Well played”, then told him that I will be doing my report and I’m disappointed with his performance today.
‘That wasn’t good in front of a big crowd on New Year’s Day.’
The fact that Cockerill had cause for complaint reflected the fact that this was a close encounter, rather than the walk-over which was on the cards for a while.
As is so often the case, the Tigers — with Martin Castrogiovanni at loosehead prop and Dan Cole at tighthead — had clear advantage in the scrum early on and that translated into a sixth-minute penalty try, which Toby Flood converted.
The England fly-half and Billy Twelvetrees then combined to send captain Geordan Murphy bursting clear for the second try. Flood added the extra two points and a 24th-minute penalty, and a rout was apparently in the offing.
Yet, Sale kept showing a willingness to run from deep, to throw bold passes, to off-load and send the ball wide, and that positive endeavour saw them rally.
Tough man to stop: Thomas Waldrom attempts a burst of speed
Kearnan Myall stole the ball from a Tigers line-out and the outstanding Auva’a stormed towards the 22. Myall was on hand to run on and swerve in-field from the left flank and he in turn put fellow lock Fraser McKenzie over the line.
Macleod converted from wide out and two penalties either side of half-time made it 17-13.
The match was back in the balance, but after Ed Slater came close to scoring from a charge-down, Leicester struck again as Flood released Twelvetrees for another powerful burst and Matt Smith shipped the ball on to Alesana Tuilagi who thundered off to score.
Still Sale weren’t finished. They scored another eye-catching try as Andy Powell’s midfield off-load found Tom Brady and he passed out for impressive full back Rob Miller to dash clear of Murphy and slide over in the right corner.
Kicking game: Toby Flood scored ten points with his boot
Again Macleod was on target to narrow the gap to five points.
Another Flood penalty nine minutes from time gave the Tigers enough breathing space, but with the last play of the game, the visitors drove in-field from a lineout and their No 10 slotted a well-taken drop goal under pressure to leave his side fifth in the table.
Cockerill added: ‘Since we got the lads back from the World Cup we’ve been on a good run so we just have to keep battering away.
‘Ten weeks ago I would have been happy with qualifying for the Heineken Cup but now we are talking about the play-offs. I just hope we can peak at the right time.’
Sale head coach Tony Hanks was satisfied with his side’s character.
‘We absolutely deserved to take something from that game,’ he said. ‘Auva’a put a lot of pressure on them at the breakdown.
‘The thing about this team is that they will keep playing for each other. They won’t ever believe they are beaten.
'I compare this to the game against Leicester at our place when we lost our discipline and fell apart a bit. That didn’t happen today.’