Leicester’s vital victory over young Manchester United hands title to City

Leicester’s vital victory over young Manchester United hands title to City

If two Cities could celebrate, Manchester City had known their coronation was only a matter of time. But the likelihood of Leicester City joining the new champions in the Champions League had diminished with each setback so the result that decided the 2020-21 title may have a greater eventual significance for the 2016 winners.

Leicester’s top-four push had been faltering. They lost 4-2 to Newcastle. They failed to beat 10-man Southampton, but in defeating a Manchester United side with 10 alterations, they ensured this opportunity was not squandered. Ole Gunnar Solskjær’s decision to prioritise Thursday’s rearranged game with Liverpool may not meet with approval on Merseyside but victory puts Leicester nine ahead of Jürgen Klopp’s team and eight clear of West Ham. “A huge step,” said Brendan Rodgers. “The players have definitely overachieved with all the big teams around.” They are tantalisingly close to earning their place among the European elite. They can look forward to Saturday’s FA Cup final with renewed confidence.

“A chance for history at the weekend,” added Rodgers. They have already made some in recording a notable double over the finalists of continental competitions. They became only the fourth team to win away at both Manchester clubs in the same Premier League campaign. Seven months after a historic 5-2 demolition of Pep Guardiola’s team, Caglar Soyuncu secured victory at Old Trafford. His header was as emphatic as it was cathartic: Soyuncu had been horribly culpable against Newcastle but, as Jamie Vardy’s drought continued, two of Leicester’s defenders compensated.

After Luke Thomas opened his Premier League account in stunning style, Soyuncu soared above Nemanja Matic to head in Marc Albrighton’s corner and inflict just United’s second defeat in 30 league games. It was rendered more likely when the teamsheets were submitted; or, Solskjær argued, when the fixture list was amended to give United four games in eight days.

“It can’t be like this again,” the United manager said. “We can’t play Thursday, Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday. That’s the reason we made the changes. It’s unheard of.” United had delayed City’s coronation with stronger sides but, given the valiant performance of their youngsters, it would be harsh to say they hastened it here.

If the initial focus was on Solskjær’s changes, it shifted to one of the men Rodgers brought in. The Leicester manager had confounded expectations, moving to 4-4-2 and benching James Maddison. The selection of Thomas instead of Ricardo Pereira felt a subplot. The left-back met Youri Tielemans’ deep cross with a volley that flew in. “An unbelievable finish,” said Rodgers. “He will never forget that. It was a special night for him.”

United levelled through the one player who retained his place. Mason Greenwood illustrated what a rich vein of form he is in; when he seemed crowded out by defenders, one touch took him past three and a second was a shot angled beyond Kasper Schmeichel. But at a club with a tradition of teenage wingers, he was flanked by two, with Anthony Elanga and Amad Diallo making Premier League debuts. The Ivorian has the pace to induce panic in defenders and he made the quicker impact with an assist. He outmuscled Thomas to tee up Greenwood. “Amad was very good,” Solskjær said. “Elanga gave us something different and Mason was absolutely fantastic. He thinks he has got to be the main man and take responsibility. He looked like a 29-year-old, not a 19-year-old.”

Juan Mata, meanwhile, represented the sedate antidote to the youthful speed around him. His outings on such stages are rationed these days but the Spaniard exuded class in a first half when Leicester were too timid. They were more purposeful after the break as Tielemans emerged as the game’s classiest passer. He pierced the United defence with a pass when David de Gea denied Kelechi Iheanacho. Solskjær then disputed the award of the corner for Soyuncu’s winner; for United, whose season has been pockmarked by set-piece errors, the outcome was sadly familiar.

But both teams’ finest defenders were sidelined spectators, watching on in a meeting of their current and former clubs as their managers provided a positive update. Jonny Evans may yet be fit for the FA Cup final. “We are hopeful,” Rodgers said. “He is a warrior.”

Harry Maguire, in crutches and a protective boot as he missed a league game for the first time since joining United, will not be available as soon but the ever optimistic Solskjær thinks he could play in the Europa League final. “There is ligament damage but hopefully we’ll see him again this season.”