Football: Ferguson infuriated by his idle idols

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The Independent Online
Manchester United 0

Leicester City 1

Military engineers throughout the ages would emphasise a castle was only as strong as its weakest point. Hence the extra fortifications, the portcullis and the drawbrige at the front door.

What no one could legislate for was some dozy clot forgetting to lock up, or in Manchester United's case 11 of them. On the very day that this newspaper applauded the near invincibility of fortress Old Trafford the team opted to make it into the Theatre of Day Dreams, and an unbeaten home record that had been jealously guarded since last April was tossed away.

The champions have lost before this season, but no-one could remember their playing as badly as they did in the first half. Careless and even idle, they barely made a tackle for 45 minutes, conceded the goal that would prove decisive and gave Leicester something tangible to fight for in a frenzied second period.

"We got what we deserved," Alex Ferguson, the United manager, said, reflecting on only the seventh League reverse at Old Trafford since the start of the Premiership. "The players were too lax at the start, dwelling on the ball and getting caught in posession. That allowed Leicester to spring off our attacks."

Which is not to decry Leicester's part in United's downfall. They hunted in packs, ran like a contract extension depended on it and thwarted the team frequently, and prematurely, described as the best in Europe. The best? Representatives of Juventus, Real Madrid and even Monaco would have fallen off their chairs giggling at the notion.

Without the room to display their skills, United's players refused until too late to roll up their sleeves and, as a result, any luck that went the visitors' way after the break was thoroughly deserved. If Leicester had been 2-0 up at half-time, no one could have begrudged them.

The visiting players took it in turns to put their shoulders to the wheel, the midfield and attack dominant initially, particularly Neil Lennon and Emile Heskey, and the defence later. You lost count of the number of tackles, blocks and headers Matt Elliott, Spencer Prior and Pontus Kamark performed, but if a tank had taken the field you could rest assured they would have got in the way.

When United eventually found the urgency to get past the guard dogs, they found either Kasey Keller in sublime form or their players inaccurate - notably Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, Ryan Giggs and - hopelessly wayward deep into injury time - Teddy Sheringham.

"It was a great day. Marvellous," Leicester's manager, Martin O'Neill, said. "I was proud of every one of my players. We knew United were going to roar at us in the second half but we stood up to them. We didn't sit back, we just couldn't get forward."

By then one of their many first-half advances had proved decisive, and typical of United's day, the goal was a mixture of the inept and the intriguing. Garry Parker's speculative chip forward would have been dealt with by a decisive Henning Berg but he dithered, allowed the ball to bounce, and Tony Cottee darted behind him to volley past Peter Schmeichel.

Cottee had spent 15 years trying to score at Old Trafford and was in the Leicester team only because of an injury to Ian Marshall, so the 32- year-old striker had a beam across his face the width of the Manchester Ship Canal at the end. Last year he was seeing out his career in Malaysia, so to be beating the champions in their own lair courtesy of a pounds 500,000 transfer last summer was far beyond the limits of his recent imagination.

"I've hit the post here, had the ball cleared off the line and had goals disallowed," Cottee said. "It's always been an ambition to score here." When did he know he was in the team? "At 2pm."

That late call proved the wrong one as far as United were concerned and they have now lost three of their last four Premiership matches, a lapse only mitigated by Liverpool and Blackburn knocking points off each other at Anfield.

They are still four points clear, but Ferguson was an angry man on Saturday night, berating the lethargy in his players. There was a sadistic glint in his eye when he said: "They will work hard the rest of the season, you can bet your life on that." Today's team meeting will not be for the squeamish.

Goal: Cottee (27) 0-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Johnsen (Berg, 5; Sheringham, 54), Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Scholes (P Neville, 83), Butt, Giggs; Cole, Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: McClair, Pilkington (gk).

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Kamark, Elliott, Walsh (Prior, 34); Savage, Lennon, Parker (Campbell, 65), Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee (Wilson, 87). Substitutes not used: Fenton, Arphexad (gk).

Bookings: Manchester Utd: Scholes, Sheringham. Leicester: Savage.

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

Man of the match: Elliott.

Attendance: 55,156.