Neil Humphreys: Manchester United squeak into Champions League
Ole's weary men prevail in drab contest to finish 3rd, while Chelsea grab 4th spot
In the end, Manchester United squeaked into the Champions League in a manner that was entirely in keeping with the end of this surreal season.
Their 2-0 victory at Leicester City was underwhelming and generated less of an atmosphere than a socially distanced queue outside a supermarket.
|LEICESTER CITY||MAN UNITED|
|Bruno Fernandes 71, Jesse Lingard 90+8|
And like that supermarket queue, the occasion was long, tiring and mostly dull, but the Red Devils ended up where they needed to go.
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, there was a sense of Champions League or bust, whatever he might have said publicly. The amiable Norwegian could hardly manage a squad with the second-highest wage bill in world football without Champions League competition again.
Finishing third has bought Solskjaer time.
Champions League qualification really was the bare minimum of requirements and United needed a clumsy penalty after 71 lacklustre minutes of the final game of the season to get the job done.
Even then, Leicester continued to jangle nerves and hint at United's persistent shortcomings, which will dominate Solskjaer's planning in the coming weeks.
David de Gea can no longer hold on to routine strikes. Captain and centre-back Harry Maguire was arguably the most rudderless and edgy Red Devil on the pitch and the fullbacks do not entirely convince.
Much of their post-coronavirus improvement was attributed to Bruno Fernandes, who opened accounts at the King Power Stadium with his penalty.
But the Portuguese midfielder was otherwise anonymous, clearly exhausted after his recent heroics. Without his authority, United toiled in vain.
But they prevailed. And that will do for now. The thought of a season without Champions League football and with Liverpool as domestic champions would've been unthinkable (and possibly even a sackable offence for their manager).
But he was spared in a contest with all the nerve and communication of a blind date as both sides hesitated for good reason.
Like Solskjaer, Brendan Rodgers was hired to nudge Leicester towards the top table of English football and looked a shoo-in for the Champions League at Christmas, when the Foxes' form promptly fell off a cliff.
So the occasion erred on the side of caution.
Despite the Foxes missing four key players and resorting to a makeshift back three, United's forward line didn't penetrate. Fatigue ruled.
Rodgers had clearly noted the Red Devils' recent lethargy and allowed United to dominate possession in the hope of a Jamie Vardy-led counter-attack.
In truth, the subdued opening was entirely in keeping with Project Restart: loads of hype, plenty at stake, but the muted
contest could never live up the billing.
Both de Gea and Maguire rarely looked comfortable or assured in positions where confidence and dominance are basic prerequisites for the job.
But events at Stamford Bridge finally simplified matters. Chelsea were 2-0 up against Wolverhampton Wanderers at half-time and coasting.
One of the sides at the King Power Stadium would definitely finish fifth. The hosts had no choice but to pursue a winner and it showed.
Vardy clipped the crossbar with a looping header on the hour mark as Leicester demonstrated a sudden urgency.
United were passive and Fernandes was peripheral and seemingly on the verge of being substituted when he broke the deadlock in the 71st minute.
After a misplaced Leicester pass, Fernandes slipped in Anthony Martial, who ended up being the filling in a clumsy Wes Morgan-Jonny Evans sandwich.
With his customary hop, skip and a jump, Fernandes tucked away the penalty.
Leicester's inability to find an equaliser, despite their opponents' obvious weariness, epitomised their recent decline. With key injuries and a small squad, they simply ran out of players and creative options.
Evans' dreadful tackle on Scott McTominay in injury time - earning a straight red card - and Jesse Lingard's tap-in, in the 98th minute, rather summed up the error-prone proceedings.
At least, Leicester will have the Europa League. And United will feel they are back where they belong.
The English giants saved face. And Solskjaer probably saved his job.
LAST NIGHT'S OTHER RESULTS:
- Arsenal 3 Watford 2
- Burnley 1 Brighton 2
- Chelsea 2 Wolves 0
- Crystal Palace 1Tottenham 1
- Everton 1 Bournemouth 3
- Manchester City 5 Norwich 0
- Newcastle 1 Liverpool 3
- Southampton 3 Sheffield United 1
- West Ham 1 Aston Villa 1