Football: Rich in spirit pick the pocket of the rich

THE MAIN EVENT: Mike Rowbottom sees Leicester's spirit leave their opponents frustrated at the last
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The Independent Online
When you have waited 121 years to win your first major trophy, it could be argued that having to wait an extra 10 days is a relatively trivial matter.

The historical viewpoint is, however, likely to be lost on Middlesbrough, who saw the Coca-Cola Cup dashed from their lips with two minutes of extra time remaining here yesterday.

As the 19-year-old Leicester players call "Bruno", Emile Heskey, finally punched his weight to earn his side a replay at Hillsborough on 16 April, Middlesbrough's expensive array of foreign players saw their stock suddenly fall.

At the final whistle, which came too soon for the men in red to get back into the black, Juninho and Fabrizio Ravanelli, who cost the North-east side nearly pounds 12m between them, stared impotently at each other. Juninho, that most sublime of footballers, was reduced to kicking the turf in his frustration.

It was a moral victory for a team rich only in endeavour and collective spirit. Just as they had done to reach this final, when they equalised at Wimbledon to go through on the away goals rule, Martin O'Neill's men demonstrated a belief in themselves that almost surpassed that of their own delirious supporters.

Little wonder then, that the word on O'Neill's lips afterwards was "delighted", while his Middlesbrough counterpart, Bryan Robson, professed himself "disappointed".

After an opening 90 minutes in which there seemed to be undue stress on the second element of the sponsors' logo - "eat football, sleep football" - the event caught light five minutes into extra time when Ravanelli displayed the predatory instincts which had persuaded Middlesbrough to pay out a club record fee of pounds 7m to Juventus in the close season.

If the definition of a world-class striker is a man who takes his chances when they arrive, then Ravanelli does not qualify. Three minutes before his decisive intervention, the Italian was presented with a virtual open goal as Mikkel Beck's cross from the left fell into his stride at the far post. But the ball fell to Ravanelli's right foot, and the shot was mis-hit.

When Juninho's characteristically tricksy dribble into the Leicester box presented the former Juventus player with his next chance, however, the ball rolled invitingly towards his more favoured foot, the left. Result: 1-0.

It seemed that Ravanelli, who had come closest to scoring for his team in normal time with a flicked header which hit the post, was to be Middlesbrough's history man.

At that point it looked as if history was repeating itself for Leicester, whose last previous appearance in a major final - the 1969 FA Cup final - had seen them lose 1-0 to another team who had failed to express their full attacking potential, the Manchester City team of Bell, Summerbee and Lee.

Juninho - finally freeing himself from the attentions of his Swedish man-marker Pontus Kaamark - might have increased the lead twice within five minutes but for an offside decision and a foul by Spencer Prior barely a yard outside the box. It seemed an academic matter, though - Leicester, whose covering until that point had been as diligent as always, looked out on their feet.

Heskey seemed the player who looked least likely to recover things for them as, limping from an earlier challenge, he lost his composure five minutes from time, squaring up - comically - to the 5ft 4in Juninho, and then getting booked for upending Craig Hignett.

But as Leicester's indomitable captain, Steve Walsh, headed the ball back across Middlesbrough's goal in one last effort, it was Heskey who rose to the challenge, heading against the bar, and then forcing the ball over the line after Steve Claridge's desperate attempts to do the same had been thwarted. Leicester had endured once more.

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