In keeping with Manchester United’s season, this was not easy.
They looked ordinary at times, one-paced and prone to defensive uncertainty. Goalkeeper David de Gea looked like an accident waiting to happen and his nervousness spread to the likes of Harry Maguire and Nemanja Matic.
But, though they lived dangerously at times, the United that finished this season is different in one crucial way to the one that started it. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s team – thanks to the improvement in Anthony Martial and young Mason Greenwood and the purchase of Bruno Fernandes – now have the ability to hurt teams in an instant. They did not do that during the uncertain days of autumn and early winter but they do it now and they did it here.
Manchester United clinched a Champions League place in the Premier League finale after edging past fellow rivals Leicester
Bruno Fernandes netted the opener from the spot on 70 minutes to put United in the ascendancy at the King Power
United were awarded the spot kick after Anthony Martial was felled with Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan both scampering back
The Old Trafford giants were part of a three-way shootout for the final two top four places – with Chelsea moving into fourth
Leicester – needing a win – were on top as the game approached its final quarter. They were not kicking the door down but they were knocking on it. All they needed was for a chance to fall to the right person. Jamie Vardy had already hit the bar.
But when Leicester midfielder Hamza Choudhury dawdled in possession in his own half, the ball was taken off him by Greenwood. On it went quickly to Fernandes and then again through the middle to Martial.
In the blink of an eye, United were in and when Jonny Evans brought the Frenchman down Fernandes stepped up to bury the penalty.
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.
LEICESTER CITY (3-5-2): Schmeichel 5.5; Justin 7, Morgan 6, Evans 5.5; Albrighton 6.5 (Gray 71mins 6), Tielemans 6 (Barnes 71mins 6), Ndidi 7.5, Choudhury 6 (Praet 71mins 6), Thomas 7; Iheanacho 6 (Perez 57mins 6), Vardy 6.5.
Not used: Ward, M James, Mendy, Bennett
SENT OFF: Evans
BRENDAN RODGERS: 6.5
MANCHESTER UNITED (4-2-3-1): De Gea 6; Wan-Bissaka 6, Maguire 5.5, Lindelof 6, Williams 6; Matic 5.5, Pogba 6; Greenwood 6 (Lingard 76mins 6), Fernandes 6.5 (McTominay 85mins 6), Rashford 6.5 (Fosu-Mensah 90mins 6); Martial 8 (Ighalo 90mins 6).
Not used: Bailly, Mata, Fred, D James, Romero.
GOALS: Fernandes (pen) 70, Lingard 90
BOOKED: Maguire, Lindelof, Matic
OLE GUNNAR SOLSKJAER: 7
REFEREE: Martin Atkinson 6
MAN OF THE MATCH: Anthony Martial
Jesse Lingard secured the crucial victory for United after stealing the ball from Kasper Schmeichel and tucking home
Jonny Evans was dismissed for a straight red card offence after a crunching tackle on Scott McTominay as frustrations flared
David de Gea made a key save by pouncing on Jamie Vardy to deny the striker from opening the scoring in the first half
The United goalkeeper was left furious with the striker and claimed he had been caught on the arm as Vardy had followed up
Youri Tielemans whistled an effort narrowly wide of the far post after Leicester sprung forward once again on the counter
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.
Fernandes thought he’d scored when he tucked home neatly in the first half but the effort was chalked off for offside
The Portuguese star was left irate with the linesman and believed he was fouled from a strong challenge from James Justin
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.
Marcus Rashford curled an effort narrowly wide of the far post after finding himself with a shooting opportunity inside the box
Anthony Martial looked as though he would be able to let fly at goal soon after the break but full back Justin recovered well
The first goal pretty much finished the game. Rodgers threw his substitutes on and one of them, Harvey Barnes, missed a good chance to equalise almost immediately.
But it was desperate stuff by the end and the game finished chaotically for Leicester. First Evans was sent off for a lunge at Scott McTominay and then Schmeichel stumbled to let Lingard in right at the end.
Solskjaer’s team have not lost in the league since January and that run has seen them make up 18 points on Leicester and brought them to third. The Norwegian has much to build on.
Substitute Demarai Gray looked to haul Leicester level after falling behind but could only curl his free kick into the United wall
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer attempted to motivate his players during the first drinks break following their nervy start to the game
‘This is a massive achievement,’ said Solskjaer.
‘It’s incredible. We have come so far as a team.
‘All the [media] predictions were for us to finish sixth or seventh. I didn’t know that until the other day. Me and the staff were discussing it.
‘But whenever I get criticised it makes me stronger. So that’s ok.’
Harry Maguire was booked during his return to Leicester after clattering into frontman Iheanacho from behind in the first half
Iheanacho proved a constant menace to the visitors and took on Brandon Williams as Leicester continued to press forward