One hand on the trophy but Ranieri won’t be watching
Title could be won tonight but lunch with mother is priority
Claudio Ranieri could be flying high tonight if Tottenham Hotspur fail to win at his former club Chelsea and Leicester City claim the first league title in the club’s 132-year history.
But then Ranieri will be flying high whatever happens, on a plane back from a trip to Rome, which is scheduled to land after the Spurs match finishes. Not that Ranieri, Leicester, their jubilant fans or even the wider world of football will come back down to earth just then.
Leicester’s surely impending title triumph, delayed here with a characterful draw, has sent the spirits soaring. They are flying high in so many ways. Had you predicted they would have achieved this last August you would have been told your head was in the clouds.
But, instead of those clouds, it is all about Claudio. This is not a flight of fancy.
Leicester could have won the title if they had won this match. But a draw was no wobble. Instead it was a performance packed full of belief, organisation, grit and skill. There was brilliance and also, as is their trademark, belligerence. There was the mark of champions at the home of United, where 20 titles can be boasted.
And, in this most quixotic of seasons, there was controversy and colourful banality with a series of incidents which culminated in United manager Louis van Gaal accusing Leicester defender Robert Huth of behaviour more in keeping with “sex masochism” after pulling Marouane Fellaini’s hair.
There was another, more relevant, form of fantasy. In the Theatre of Dreams, Leicester took another step towards fulfilling their own, more wholesome reveries. They are eight points clear at the top.
The remarkable narrative around Leicester should not completely dominate another story. Van Gaal said United had to win this to keep alive their hopes of finishing in the top four, of securing Champions League football, but they could not achieve it despite a blistering first half-hour.
The pressure will grow, with that Jose Mourinho plot also back in town, deservedly so for Van Gaal even if the setback was in keeping with this topsy-turvy season, only softened by Manchester City’s thumping loss to Southampton.
There were further, immediate, localised storylines also with Leicester once more reduced to 10 men through a sending off, with Danny Drinkwater shown two yellow cards for repeating the same offence.
He tugged back Marcus Rashford early in the second half and, in the 87th minute, also pulled back substitute Memphis Depay with the red card flourished by referee Michael Oliver.
Even then there was controversy with United arguing that their former midfielder – who had been outstanding – had continued the offence inside the penalty area and a spot-kick should have been awarded. Then there was even more controversy, with suggestions that Drinkwater verbally abused Oliver as he left the pitch.
The Football Association will scrutinise Oliver’s report before deciding if further action needs to be taken – as it did recently in the case of Jamie Vardy – against Drinkwater, who will receive at least a one-match ban, but also against Fellaini and Huth.
So another big game, another set of controversies and marginal calls.
There were more. Jesse Lingard fell as he ran through from halfway, having intercepted a careless square pass by Danny Simpson, another former United player, but no action was taken. United fans howled for Simpson to go but it did not look a foul as both players had their arms across each other.
Then Riyad Mahrez went over as he was challenged by Marcos Rojo in the United area but penalty appeals were waved away when one could easily have been given. Van Gaal insisted that Fellaini, as well, should have been awarded a spot-kick for that Huth hair-tug.
So the champagne is on ice. And ice, also, ran through the blood of some of these Leicester players with Drinkwater – the red card notwithstanding – and captain Wes Morgan outstanding and everyone else resolutely playing a part.
It was Morgan who shored things up with Leicester’s equalising goal which owed everything to his powerful desire to get to the ball ahead of Rojo, who was brushed aside and struggled all afternoon, and meet Drinkwater’s free-kick to head home. In that moment was caught another reason why Leicester are heading to the title.
It came after they had fallen behind and then were indebted to another hero, Kasper Schmeichel, making his first appearance at this stadium where his father, here to watch, had been such a commanding presence in the United goal.
Schmeichel junior beat out a fierce first-time shot by Lingard that could have doubled United’s advantage.
At that moment United were rampant, transformed from the ponderous, turgid team they had been for most of this campaign with Anthony Martial having given them the lead.
It came as United flew forward with width and with Antonio Valencia charging ahead from right-back to arc a cross with the outside of his boot that deceived Simpson and ran through to Martial who swept it past Schmeichel and just inside the near post.
On the touchline Ranieri will have ruefully reflected that it was he, less than three years ago, who had given Martial his debut at Monaco – and now here he was, a £58 million striker who might just have delayed his dream.
But champions respond. They find a way and Leicester would not be denied. Once level it was nip and tuck although, into the second half, it was Ranieri’s side carrying the greater threat. As crosses flew in, Leonardo Ulloa started to win them, but they could not quite test David De Gea.
After Drinkwater’s dismissal it switched again with United, a man up, inevitably finishing strongest.
“We shall not be moved,” sang the Leicester fans – and they did not move for a long time after the final whistle as they stayed on loud, believing and sounding like champions. They are flying.
Captain Wes Morgan celebrates scoring Leicester’s equaliser at Old Trafford