Manchester United have qualified for the Champions League following an eventful win at Leicester City.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer can look at this season as a success, which did not seem as if it would be the case after the worst start to a season in 30 years. Indeed, following the October defeat at Newcastle, and December’s draw against Aston Villa, Solskjaer himself appeared to be on the brink of losing his job – but the unbeaten run in the last 14 league games has secured a return to the continent’s top competition.
Bruno Fernandes and Jesse Lingard were the goalscorers in the second half, and former Red Jonny Evans was dismissed, as United got a victory they just about deserved.
United’s start was jittery; Harry Maguire was booked in the 11th minute, and a couple of defensive lapses almost let in Leicester.
First, a loose pass from Nemanja Matic after United had once again failed to play their way out of the back presented a chance for Ndidi, who fired over. Maguire then had a very shaky moment where he completely missed the ball but Matic bailed him out. And David De Gea was relieved to see the linesman’s flag deny Jamie Vardy after he spilled a shot from the edge of the box.
United fared better in the second quarter, as the game moved towards half-time. Bruno Fernandes had the ball in the net but was offside by a good yard on to Paul Pogba’s exquisite pass. The Frenchman then set up Rashford with another sublime clipped pass; the English striker did well to control, but horribly in his finish. Martial and Rashford both went close in stoppage time, but were denied by a deflection and Kasper Schmeichel respectively.
Leicester, however, reminded of their own threat in the 40th minute when two cross field passes created an opening for Vardy, but the Foxes legend could not adjust his body in time. Half-time 0-0, and both teams would have been made aware of Chelsea’s double strike close to the break putting them in charge of their own destiny. The pre-match suggestion that Solskjaer and Brendan Rodgers might shake hands on a draw, if that would result in a favourable conclusion, was out of the window.
Vardy looked the biggest threat, as you would expect, in the second half too. His 60th minute header clipped the crossbar and then Victor Lindelof was booked for a foul on him.
But in the 70th minute, it was the visitors who broke the deadlock; a mistake in the Leicester backline was seized upon by Greenwood. Martial, through on goal, was brought down by Evans and Morgan. Evans was deemed the culprit and was booked. Fernandes has ditched the hop and skip for his last couple of spot-kicks but it was back here, and the man who was brought in to make the difference when it came to United’s Champions League hopes did exactly that.
Leicester responded with spirit – Harvey Barnes and Morgan both missed good chances – but in the 94th minute were reduced to ten men when Evans was dismissed for a high lunge on McTominay. Solskjaer rung the changes to run down the clock and one of those brought on was Jesse Lingard. Lingard, without a league goal since Solskjaer’s first game in charge at Cardiff in December 2018, closed down Kasper Schmeichel and scored into the empty net in the 8th minute of time added on. It may be a parting note; if so, a United born-and-bred kid will at least have the consolation of providing two of the most memorable post-Sir Alex moments.
Solskjaer went with his strongest eleven after it was revealed Luke Shaw would be missing until the new season. It was not utterly convincing, and Leicester definitely missed their absent players, but the job was done, and a result was ground out in a fashion these players are often accused of not being capable of.
What vindication for Solskjaer, who has faced contempt from some sections of the club’s own support who deserve to remain nameless. What a good feeling for Solskjaer, a legend of the club, to have achieved this result, especially when it seemed as if momentum was shifting in another direction in recent weeks. It did seem in October as if he were doomed and there was never any convincing message that made it clear that his fate would not be the same as Louis van Gaal’s should his team not get the right result today.
Manchester United have finished third – yes, they’re closer in points and theory to eighth than second, and improvement is needed, but they have proven themselves to be just as good as the teams around them, and they have picked up positive results against the teams above them. They have done it playing largely good football and now have an opportunity to make the statement of impact they have always promised would happen if they got to this stage.
Solskjaer has done the club proud. Now they need to not let him down so that more positive days can follow.
De Gea 7