Manchester United will return to the Champions League next season, not exactly by bursting through the gilded gates of that competition, but rather by careful stealth.
They needed only to maintain an impressive 14-match unbeaten Premier League run to stay in the top four. They went one better, finishing third, and their victory over Leicester City extinguished Leicester’s hopes of themselves clambering into Europe’s elite.
A Bruno Fernandes penalty set United on course, and with Leicester aware that Chelsea winning against Wolves meant they had to throw everything forward, an error by Kasper Schmeichel gave Jesse Lingard, a substitute, a straightforward goal late on. Leicester were by then down to 10 men, following the dismissal of Jonny Evans for a crude foul on Scott McTominay
For Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has endured some tough moments, this looks a major threshold in his managerial career. He made United hard to beat when it mattered. In the first season of VAR, it will also be noted, United have set a new record. Their 14th penalty award – when Evans was deemed to have fouled Anthony Martial – is unmatched in Premier League history.
And, in the longest season recorded, because of the pause and restart, United summoned just enough stamina when rivals could not. Fernandes, among others, looked tired, but so too did Leicester, whose early season momentum faded just too far to make their Champions League ambition real.
There were symptoms of apprehension from both sides in a first-half of many imperfections. Either nerves, or plain fatigue, might explain the casual giving-away of possession deep in United territory by Nemanja Matic. Youri Tielemans considered the gift and relayed it to Wilfried Ndidi, who fired off target.
United would be troubled by the lively running of Kelechi Iheanacho. Harry Maguire, ex of Leicester, picked up a caution for an anxious clatter on the Nigerian. In ordinary times, Maguire would have roundly booed at his old stadium. In these silent, crowd-free times, you could only hear the thump of the two men landing on the turf.
Twice after that, Iheanacho launched rapid safaris. The first, featuring an elegant turn, fizzled after he passed to Tielemans. The next time Iheanacho set off, he chose the solo path, David De Gea scrabbling to reach his shot. The option of a cute pass to Vardy had been overlooked by Iheanacho; it might have been the wise choice.
For United, there was tantalising evidence of what Solskjaer has seen they can do very well, some glimpses of their progress. The starlet of Project Restart, Mason Greenwood, headed over the crossbar, having anticipated Marcus Rashford’s measured pass.
Some of the same elegant choreography was at work when Paul Pogba picked out the late run of Fernandes, who has been the star capture of the winter transfer window. Fernandes, alas, was just offside, as Anthony Martial, a striker rejuvenated in the second half of the season, had been when he latched onto a Pogba through-ball.
Pogba, Fernandes, Greenwood, Martial and Rashford: That is a front five to build hopes around, and maybe even an imminent trophy-run provided they go into next month’s Europa League rescheduled later rounds without too much wearniness.
As for the next Premier League, while third place is a far better prize than last season’s sixth, the 33 points separating United – the club who have, historically, most Premier League titles – from the new champions, Liverpool, is a vast gap to make up.
Against Leicester, the cunning through-ball continued to promise more than it delivered for United. Matic released Martial, who was thwarted by James Justin’s intervention.
Martial then received from Greenwood, Schmeichel coming off his line to stymie the French forward. Then the breakthrough: Thanks to Greenwood’s alertness in stealing the ball from Hamza Choudhury, Martial was set up for another duel with Schmeichel until he was sandwiched between Evans and Wes Morgan, with Evans booked. Fernandes converted the spot-kick.
At 1-0 down, Leicester had it all to do. Shortly before the penalty, Vardy had clipped the frame of the United goal, meeting a Tielemans free-kick. Leicester introduced a quartet of attacking substitutes and Damarai Gray whipped an effort just past De Gea’s right-hand post. Schmeichel, in a gesture United fans would recognise as one of his father’s trademarks, joined in the Leicester attack for a late set-piece.
But there would be no late no catching the train into Europe’s elite for Leicester, whose frustration was plain in the dangerous challenge Evans made on McTominay. Evans was given a straight red card, and when Schmeichel carelessly let Lingard in, the United substitute completed an unfulfilling season gleefully, with his first goal.