Soccer

Manchester United grabs Champions League spot by denying Leicester

AP

Six months ago, when the coronavirus outbreak was a distant concern for English football, some things seemed more certain in the Premier League.

Manchester United would struggle to break into the Champions League places while Ole Gunnar Solskjaer remained in charge. Leicester was a team revived under Brendan Rodgers, primed for a return to Europe's elite competition.

Who was to doubt that, with 14 points separating third-place Leicester from United in fifth in January?

But this was a season like no other. By the time it ended Sunday — in July rather than May due to the pandemic-enforced hiatus in play — United was the team in third and Leicester four points behind in fifth.

A 2-0 victory for Solskjaer's side in a final day showdown between the Champions League contenders completed a remarkable turnaround for United and capitulation for Leicester.

"They have taken on so many things, we’ve had our ups and downs,” Solskjaer said. "It is a wonderful achievement by everyone.”

While United could make €100 million from the Champions League after a one-season absence, Leicester won't make half that in the Europa League and could struggle to keep the squad together.

An addition to United's squad in late January has proved integral to its transformation. How fitting that Bruno Fernandes scored the opener at Leicester from the penalty spot in the 71st minute following Anthony Martial being fouled by Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan.

"He’s made a massive impact,” Solskjaer said of the recruit from Lisbon club Sporting for a fee of up to €80 million. "He’s been fantastic — scoring goals, creating goals, but also his enthusiasm and mentality around the place has helped.”

Since his debut in a 0-0 draw against Wolverhampton — which followed an abject 2-0 home loss to Burnley when United was booed off by its own fans — United has won a league-leading 32 points. And a league-leading 14-game unbeaten run culminated in the celebrations at the King Power Stadium.

"I believe in what I’m doing,” said Solskjaer, whose side is still in contention for this season's Europa League. "If I’m getting criticized, that makes me stronger and makes me believe more in what I’m doing. Please don’t praise me too much because you can be complacent.”

A snapshot of Leicester's recent misfortune came in stoppage time when — having had Evans sent off — goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel's attempt to take the ball past Jesse Lingard only saw the United forward seize possession to roll in the second goal.

How the Foxes have missed injured creative midfielder James Maddison and fullbacks Ricardo Pereira and Ben Chilwell in recent weeks just when they had been reliving the highs of 2016 when the 5,000-1 outsiders won the Premier League.

The goals even dried up for Jamie Vardy, although the 33-year-old striker's tally of 23 was still a league high — winning the Golden Boot — despite three barren games to complete the season.

"It was disappointing, more the way we’ve ended up losing the game, but we said the target at the start of the season behind closed doors was to qualify for Europe and we’ve done that," Vardy said. "To be in with a chance of qualifying for the Champions League was even better, but unfortunately — over the course of the season — it wasn’t to be.”

Defeat to Manchester left the 2016 champions with only nine points from nine games since the league resumed — allowing both United and Chelsea to overtake them.

How different from March 9 when Leicester beat Aston Villa 4-0 in what turned out to be the last game before the league's shutdown and the last time fans were allowed into a Premier League game.

Even then, Leicester was still third with an eight-point lead over United in fifth.

Not only has Leicester now been shut out of the Champions League, but this central England city is still in lockdown.

While most coronavirus restrictions have been lifted across England, a local lockdown was placed on Leicester in an effort to contain infections which limits residents to only essential travel.

Mason Mount sent Chelsea into next season’s Champions League with a sumptuous free kick and an assist for Olivier Giroud in a 2-0 win over Wolverhampton on the final day of the Premier League on Sunday.

Mount’s curling strike from just outside the area put Chelsea ahead in first-half stoppage time at Stamford Bridge, before the 21-year-old England international teed up Giroud for a fine finish less than three minutes later.

Chelsea sealed a fourth-place finish in Frank Lampard’s first season in charge, and joined champion Liverpool, second-place Manchester City and third-place Manchester United in the Champions League.

The 33-year-old Giroud became the oldest man to score in five straight Premier League starts, swiping that record from Leicester’s Jamie Vardy.

Lampard said qualifying for the Champions League will boost Chelsea’s recruitment drive that has already seen winger Hakim Ziyech arrive from Ajax and striker Timo Werner join from Leipzig.

Bayer Leverkusen midfielder Kai Havertz reportedly could join Chelsea this summer, too.

Asked if a top-four finish makes recruitment easier, Lampard said: "In brutal honesty, I would say yes. Not to say exactly where that will go, because that’s not a conversation today off the back of the game straightaway.

"We know that the economics of the Champions League are big, we know that. We know the prestige, top players want to play in the Champions League. The top players that are here already, even the young players, they want to play in the Champions League."

Lampard made the bold decision to start veteran goalkeeper Willy Caballero ahead of Kepa Arrizabalaga, giving Chelsea's manager a dilemma ahead of Saturday's FA Cup final against Arsenal.

"The idea that we haven’t kept enough clean sheets is definitely not just a reflection of our goalkeeper,” said Lampard. "That’s something that we have to work on as a team, look at how we train, maybe how we recruit generally going forward. But I don’t want to pinpoint it on Kepa today.

"That was a decision today probably on recent form, recent situations for him, he’s had a tough time. And I felt Willy coming in off the back of a good performance against Manchester United last week would be what we needed today. So I don’t want to jump forward beyond the Arsenal game next week. It would be wrong."

Wolves’ loss meant they failed to finish in sixth — a Europa League qualifying spot — with Tottenham going ahead on goal difference thanks to a 1-1 draw at Crystal Palace.

Seventh-place Wolves could still play in Europe next season – in the Champions League if they win the Europa League, which resumes next month, or in the Europa League if Chelsea wins the FA Cup on Saturday.

"The season is not finished yet, it’s not over for us yet; we have 10 days to prepare a game,” said Wolves manager Nuno Espirito Santo, referring to the last-16 second leg against Olympiakos that is poised at 1-1.

"What happens (in the FA Cup final), happens. But we should do things so we deserve it.”

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