LONDON. — Manchester United secured a place in the Champions League at the expense of Leicester City with 2-0 victory at King Power Stadium yesterday.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side needed a point from this decisive final-day meeting to confirm a place in the top four — and break the hearts of the Foxes, who were in a Champions League spot for so much of the season.
Leicester needed victory once Chelsea took command at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers but their dreams were dashed as Bruno Fernandes scored a 71st-minute penalty after Anthony Martial tumbled under challenge from Wes Morgan and Jonny Evans.
Both sides had their chances, with Leicester City keeper Kasper Schmeichel saving well from Marcus Rashford in the first half and Jamie Vardy seeing a header glance off the frame of the goal after the break.
Leicester pressed but could not break Manchester United down and their misery was compounded when Evans was sent off against his former club for a wild, late lunge on Scott McTominay.
Manchester United confirmed the formalities seconds from time when substitute Jesse Lingard robbed Schmeichel and rolled the ball into an empty net.
It is a result that fulfils the usual minimum requirement of Champions League qualification for Manchester United.
But while Leicester City’s fifth-placed finish is highly creditable and earns a place in the Europa League, this will undoubtedly be a huge disappointment and anti-climax after being in a position to reach the Champions League for so long.
It will be scant consolation for them that striker Vardy will claim the Golden Boot, as the Premier League’s top scorer with 23 goals.
There was to be one more goal, Leicester goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel presenting the ball to United substitute Jesse Lingard in the very last moments, but that passage in the 70th minute tipped the balance of a tight game and sent Solskjaer’s team in to next season’s Champions League.
They deserve it, too, for the way they have played during the second half of this season. This was their 14th Premier League penalty of the season, a record for any club. But that isn’t the reason they have finished third.
No, it is because they have found a way to play that hurts teams again. They are far from good enough to be a title winning side but they are much better than they were and that has proved to be enough.
This was a little tough on Leicester and their manager Brendan Rodgers. They went in to the break in the season back in March looking odds-on for a place in the top four. But the Leicester squad has always looked a little thin and over time injuries have caught up with them a little.
In recent weeks they have not been particularly recognisable and the reason they have surrendered a Champions League place is not because they lost this game but because they emerged from hibernation to lose points to teams like Watford, Brighton, Everton and Bournemouth. On this occasion, Rodgers’ team were not bad at all.
United started well and Greenwood headed over but then Leicester started to threaten, particularly on the break. Wilfred Ndidi and Marc Albrighton both shot over, Kelechi Iheanacho shot weakly when running from deep and then Vardy was off target at the near post. United looked anxious at times. Matic gave the ball away in a bad area and then Maguire stood on it. Before long, both men were booked.
United did threaten sporadically — Marcus Rashford shooting wide and then bringing a plunging save from Schmeichel in the 45th minute — but they never controlled the game. They never looked certain that the outcome would be the desired one.
Leicester continued to press in the second half and Vardy landed a flick header on the top of the bar. For the home team Ndidi was excellent but how Rodgers must have wished James Maddison was on the field as he sought a bit of quality with which to unlock the safe.
Meanwhile, No expletives or explosive touchline rants necessary from Frank Lampard yesterday. Just pure elation.
Chelsea will play Champions League football next season, this triumph over 2-0 Wolves seeing to that.
It was fitting that one of their own, Mason Mount, engineered this most crucial of victories. In the season Chelsea’s academy finally showed its worth; it was arguably their brightest talent of all that pushed them over the line.
Lampard, in his understated style, adorned his players with all the credit. They, of course, deserve high praise.
But Lampard, while he may not admit it, is the true architect of Chelsea’s top-four finish.
Not many gave Chelsea a hope of this back in August. The scepticism was logical: a transfer ban, an inexperienced manager about to take his first season in the Premier League and a team flooded with unproven youngsters isn’t necessarily a recipe for success. Lampard and his fledgling stars have proved their doubters wrong.
“I’m very pleased but I don’t want to sing my own praises,” said Lampard.
“It’s the players and it’s always a team effort. I’m proud. But I put that in small brackets because we want to challenge for titles at this club.”
Of course, with Champions League football comes vast riches. Having already signed Hakim Ziyech and Timo Werner — who was at Stamford Bridge yesterday — for a combined fee of close to £90million, Chelsea intend to spend more ahead of next season, their qualification for the Champions League providing licence to execute those plans.
Kai Havertz is expected to arrive from Bayer Leverkusen, while Lampard fancies Leicester left-back Ben Chilwell. You hope, however, that any splurge will not restrict the progress of Mount and his fellow academy graduates who have played such an integral role in Chelsea’s success.
It does, however, appear likely the Chelsea boss will make a new No 1 a priority during the transfer window.
On arguably the biggest game of his managerial career, Lampard made the huge call of dropping £72million goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga. — Mailonline/BBC Sport.