Leicester City head to Manchester United in danger of repeating Champions League heartbreak

Foxes travel to Old Trafford on Tuesday knowing they could miss out on top-four place for second season running

Manchester United had rarely enjoyed a Schmeichel blunder so much. It was the 98th minute of the final game of last season when Kasper Schmeichel failed to dribble the ball past Jesse Lingard and the substitute slotted the ball into the empty net.

Leicester 0 United 2; Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s side were bound for the Champions League and Leicester, ever-presents in the top four since August, finished fifth.

There is a growing threat that history will repeat itself. Not for Lingard; that may forever remain his last goal for his first club. Nor for United, already guaranteed a top-four finish. But for Leicester, the pacesetters who may be caught on the line once again.

They have been in the Champions League places after 69 of the last 71 Premier League games; it will become 70 of 72 on Tuesday but as their last three games are against United, Chelsea and Tottenham, they could soon be leapfrogged.

Friday’s shambolic 4-2 defeat to Newcastle had unwanted parallels with last summer’s 4-1 defeat to Bournemouth; it was also Leicester’s 35th league game and looked the banker in their run-in. Then Jonny Evans scored an own goal. This time around, he was injured in the warm-up. “I have always said he is the brain in our defence,” Brendan Rodgers said on Friday.

Minus Evans, Caglar Soyuncu turned in a sadly brainless performance against Newcastle; it felt a sequel to his sending-off against Bournemouth. He will be charged with bringing more reassurance and reliability at Old Trafford on Tuesday.

Soyuncu’s anti-climactic ending to last season is another unfortunate precedent. Then Leicester finished without him, Ben Chilwell, James Maddison and Ricardo Pereira.

Now Harvey Barnes, James Justin and perhaps Evans will not play again. Wilfred Ndidi and Youri Tielemans’ form tailed off last season. Now Jamie Vardy only has two goals in 23 games. Pereira has not got back to his best after injury.

Leicester 3 United 1: FA Cup quarter-final player ratings

Once again, their fate could be determined by the stand-ins. Wes Morgan, Luke Thomas and Hamza Choudhury started against United last July. George Hirst, who is now on loan at Rotherham, was sent on in a final throw of the dice.

There had been the sense that Leicester have had more strength in depth this season but it faces further examination. Rodgers has adapted intelligently to their absentees. But the 3-5-2 that has enabled Kelechi Iheanacho to partner Vardy has worked less well of late.

They have conceded first in their last three games, even though their opponents were Crystal Palace, Southampton and Newcastle.

Chances have been squandered. Fortune favoured them when Southampton were wrongly reduced to 10 men in the 10th minute (Jannik Vestergaard’s red card was subsequently rescinded). It may do again.

Solskjaer has vowed to field a weakened team; those who have started both against Roma and Aston Villa are less likely to begin tonight’s game. It could spare Leicester a date with Bruno Fernandes, while their former defender Harry Maguire is injured anyway.

And they have fond memories of their last meeting with a below-strength United side. “The last time we met, we knocked them out of the FA Cup,” remembered Ndidi. It was only in March. Leicester’s outstanding away record, featuring 10 wins and a 5-2 thrashing of Manchester City at the Etihad, ought to offer more optimism.

But United made up a 14-point deficit to overtake them last season. Chelsea have already come from nine behind to advance beyond them now. Leicester may need seven points to seal a top-four finish.

A week that could bring their maiden FA Cup win may instead lead to one with a familiar sense of heartbreak, of a season that promised so much delivering less.

Published: May 11, 2021 09:30 AM

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