Leicester on brink of glory as United Euro hopes falter
Manchester Utd 1 Leicester City 1
So Leicester City take it to the Bridge, but on a day when Manchester United were there for the taking, Claudio Ranieri’s champions-elect really should have left Old Trafford with the Premier League trophy already decked in blue ribbons.
If Tottenham Hotspur fail to claim three points against Chelsea at Stamford Bridge this evening, the title will be Leicester’s and there will be no sense of anti-climax at the King Power Stadium if the club secures its first-ever league championship with their players watching from their sofa.
But it is surely more memorable to win it on the pitch and, although Louis van Gaal’s team began the game like the United of old, they ended it like the United of now – a team light on flair and invention and one which can only dream of sitting where Leicester find themselves right now, at the top of the tree and preparing for a title party when they host Everton next Saturday.
Two more points will seal the title for Leicester, however, regardless of what Tottenham can muster against the outgoing champions.
But as for United, their prospects of making a late surge into the top four to secure Champions League qualification now appear increasingly bleak after Wes Morgan’s 17th-minute header cancelled out Anthony Martial’s eighth minute opener.
Leicester were the better team, the one which resembled a group of players chasing the title, and whoever is in charge of United next season, their priority will be to ensure that, when this fixture takes place next term, it will be the red shirts attempting to win silverware as well as those in blue.
Still, while United’s 2015-16 campaign will quickly be dismissed as one to forget, Leicester’s season will go down as the most memorable in the club’s history, even if they somehow contrive to throw the title away.
Do not stick the mortgage on that happening, though. Ranieri’s team displayed the resolve at Old Trafford which has taken them to the brink of the title and, if Spurs win at Chelsea, it is difficult to imagine Leicester slipping up at home to Everton at the weekend.
Their response to United’s whirlwind start was a pointer to the qualities that have taken Leicester to the top of the table – there was no panic, just a steely determination to haul themselves level.
Martial’s opener was United at their best, however, with pace on the break resulting in clinical finishing.
Antonio Valencia’s break down the right flank was picked out Jesse Lingard, who had spotted the Ecuadorean breaking outside of him.
Having found space, Valencia crossed to the far post with the outside of his right boot and Martial beat Kasper Schmeichel at the near post with low strike from six yards.
Leicester responded quickly, though. Okazaki headed narrowly over the crossbar four minutes later before Schmeichel denied United a second with a stunning save low to his left to keep out Lingard’s strike.
Ranieri’s team cancelled out United’s opener on 17 minutes, however, when Morgan escaped the dozing Marcos Rojo to head past David de Gea from close range.
Rojo endured a nightmare first-half. Having gifted Morgan his goal, the Argentine repeated his mistake shortly afterwards, only for the Leicester captain to head over.
The left-back was then lucky not to concede a penalty when he stuck a leg out to trip to Riyad Mahrez on 39 minutes.
Referee Michael Oliver dismissed Leicester’s appeals, but the official’s first-half was as unimpressive as Rojo’s, with Marouane Fellaini somehow escaping punishment for elbowing Robert Huth twice in a penalty area scuffle.
Huth instigated the spat by tugging Fellaini’s hair, so both could find themselves facing violent conduct charges from the Football Association this week.
Fellaini, who has struggled to win over the United supporters even since his £27.5m arrival from Everton three years ago, later suffered the ignominy of being sarcastically cheered off when replaced by Ander Herrera in the second-half.
Prior to that, however, Leicester had upped the tempo in an effort to win the game and the title.
It was a telling tactic, one which highlighted the confidence among Ranieri’s squad. At the home of the 20-time champions, Leicester were dictating the play and taking charge.
Morgan forced a save from De Gea with a close-range header, and Leonardo Ulloa, once against deputising for the suspended Jamie Vardy, twice went close as the United defence struggled to cope with his physical presence.
United, in contrast, failed to land a punch, allowing themselves to launch hopeful balls to Fellaini rather than attempting to open Leicester up with the passing or pace expected by the Old Trafford supporters.
Van Gaal threw on Juan Mata, Herrera and Memphis Depay in an effort to add invention, but it did little to make a difference.
Wayne Rooney, largely unimpressive in the number ten role as he struggled to get involved, almost teed up a goal for Chris Smalling on 78 minutes, but the defender’s header hit the post.
Leicester were more than comfortable, even after losing midfielder Danny Drinkwater for the final five minutes following a foul on Depay which resulted in his second yellow card.
The former United youngster appeared to verbally abuse Oliver as he left the pitch, so he may also face FA action if video footage supports that or the incident is reported by the referee.
The Football Association will scrutinise Oliver’s report before deciding if further action needs to be taken – as it did recently in the case of Jamie Vardy – against Drinkwater, who will receive at least a one-match ban, but also against the combative Fellaini and Huth.
So another big game, another set of controversies and marginal calls.
There were more. Jesse Lingard fell as he ran through from half-way, having intercepted a careless square pass by Danny Simpson, another former United player, but no action was taken.
United fans howled for Simpson to go but it did not look a foul as both players had their arms across each other.
But with or without Drinkwater, the title will surely be Leicester’s before the end of the week.
And unless Spurs can claim three points at Chelsea for the first time since February 1990, Leicester will have only a few hours to wait for the most remarkable title triumph in English football history. (© Independent News Service)
Independent News Service