City reignite their Champions League hopes – just in time for trip to Wembley
CAGLAR THE HERO IN FIRST WIN AT OLD TRAFFORD FOR 23 YEARS
LEICESTER City reignited their Champions League push with a momentous win at Old Trafford last night that could go down as the most significant of the season.
Luke Thomas and Caglar Soyuncu scored to earn City’s first win at Manchester United since 1998, moving them eight points clear of the chasing pack in the race for a top four finish.
The pressure had been mounting on City as they looked like losing grip of a Champions League place for the second year running, but just when it was needed they produced a resilient performance, if one lacking in quality throughout.
There were flashes of brilliance, not least from local lad Thomas, putting City in front early on with a perfectly-placed volley at the back post.
A much-changed United responded immediately through Mason Greenwood, and City looked like they may be frustrated in their pursuit of three points, not just by the hosts, but by their own sloppy ball-playing.
But midway through the second period, Soyuncu became the first player since Tony Cottee 23 years ago to score a winner for City at the Theatre of Dreams, powerfully meeting a corner to find the net.
City hung on for the three points, meaning Manchester City were crowned as champions, and now require just four more points to ensure they finish inside the top four.
By the time they play Chelsea in their next Premier League game, results elsewhere may have sealed it for them.
For now, the focus turns to the small matter of an FA Cup final at
Wembley. After just one point against Southampton and Newcastle, Rodgers admitted City had made life difficult for themselves in the battle for the top four.
With a tough run of fixtures to conclude the season, they needed any help they could get, and they received one in the fixture scheduling.
With United’s game against Liverpool previously called off after fan protests and rescheduled for this week, the Red Devils were playing three games in five days.
As the middle of the trio of fixtures, City got lucky, with United forced to rotate.
Manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer made 10 changes, with only Greenwood keeping his place, even bringing in debutant winger Anthony Elanga.
The big-hitters, like Bruno Fernandes,
Edinson Cavani and Marcus Rashford were all left on the bench.
City made two changes of their own.
After admitting their lack of peak fitness was preventing them from performing at the desired level, Ricardo Pereira and James Maddison were dropped, with Thomas and Ayoze Perez coming in.
Unsurprisingly, given his need for crutches against Newcastle, Jonny Evans was not fit to return, so the three-man defence of Timothy Castagne, Wesley Fofana, and Caglar Soyuncu was retained, despite their errors against the Toon.
With United making 10 changes, there were new partnerships all across the pitch for the hosts, meaning there was miscommunication and disorganisation for City to exploit.
And they did so quite brilliantly. With 10 minutes on the clock, Kelechi Iheanacho dragged the defenders out of position and Youri Tielemans broke free of Nemanja Matic’s attention to race clear on to a ball down the right.
The Belgian lofted a cross to the back post where Jamie Vardy was back-peddling to try to reach it.
But then the number nine heard a shout from his teenage teammate.
Arriving late was Thomas and the Syston-born academy graduate connected with the cross to produce the sweetest volley, the ball arrowing past David de Gea and the man on the line to nestle just inside the upright.
It was astonishing technique and composure from the wingback.
It was only the third time in 10 Premier League games that City had opened the scoring, but against United that meant little.
In the 14 games they had conceded first, they had won 10, and true enough they were on level terms five minutes after Thomas’s strike.
In the pouring rain, Thomas failed to deal with a long ball, allowing Amad Diallo to collect on the right-hand side.
He played it inside to Greenwood, who skipped around Soyuncu with ease, then scuffed a shot into the bottom corner, past the outstretched leg of Kasper Schmeichel.
Had the Dane known the shot would trundle into the corner, he may have opted to go with his hands, rather than his leg. Watching it back, he may feel he should have done better.
Disappointingly for City, the equaliser settled United, and they were not quite as easy to attack for the remainder of the half.
On the ball, neither side did themselves justice. In attacking
areas, there were barely five passes strung together. For United, there was perhaps an excuse, given the changs. For City, there wasn’t.
It felt like there were weak links in the United side – Brandon Williams was uncomfortable on the ball, Axel Tuanzebe was easily dragged out of position, Matic was slow, and yet City could not use that to their advantage.
The only time they tested De Gea in the remainder of the first half was when Tielemans spooned a cross, forcing the Spaniard to tip the ball over his bar.
The second half was different. While City’s play still lacked purpose and conviction at times, there was more patience and more accuracy, while the defence held their shape well to pen
United in. Iheanacho had a chance for a 14th goal in 12 games when he was threaded through by Tielemans, but by the time he got the shot away, he was too close to De Gea and the United keeper blocked with his midriff.
With 25 minutes to play, Solskjaer had seen enough – it was time to bring on the dangermen Rashford and Cavani.
Perhaps spurred on by their introduction, City immediately retook the lead.
Rashford’s first job was to mark Soyuncu at the corner, but the Turk showed excellent desire not only to escape his attention, but then to leap clear of Matic and bullet Albrighton’s deep corner past De Gea.
It was his first goal of the season, and what a time to get it.
The changes did little to alter the course of the game, and City kept attacking, almost grabbing a match-sealing third.
Iheanacho was sent chasing down the right, and then held up the ball to wait for support.
He found it in Vardy, with the Nigerian swinging a cross to the back post, Vardy heading it back the way it came for an onrushing Tielemans.
The Belgian stretched, but could not quite reach it, the ball bouncing out for a goal kick while he slid into the post.
With 10 minutes to play and a lead to protect, City went defensive, Hamza Choudhury replacing Vardy.
City sat deep and invited pressure, backing themselves to deal with it.
Choudhury’s first involvement was to allow Juan Mata to leave his side, the Spaniard afforded far too much space in the box.
The cross was half-cleared to Fernandes, now on the pitch, but he spun a shot well wide.
The final few minutes were excruciating. City had everyone back, United had everyone forward, and crosses and corners came in thick and fast.
But there was a lack of quality on the delivery, allowed City to get their heads to the ball, or for Schmeichel to claim.
The seconds seemed like hours, but eventually they ticked down and referee Craig Pawson blew his whistle. City had their win at Old Trafford and they had a huge three points in the race for the Champions League.
They’re back on track, and just in time for a trip to Wembley.