Yesterday's draw at Filbert Street, coupled with victory for Liverpool at home to Tottenham, means that United cannot now secure the Premiership crown tomorrow afternoon against Middlesbrough. Victory, though, followed by Liverpool failing to win at Wimbledon on Tuesday, will see the title retained without United in action in front of their own crowd yet again.
That would represent the fourth time in five seasons it has happened and while Alex Ferguson and his team would take the title however it came, perhaps their faithful 55,000 would prefer to see a meaningful match and the prize secured at home for the first time since 1965.
Nothing would give them greater pleasure than avenging that 5-0 defeat at Newcastle on Thursday, unless it was a win three days later over West Ham, who thwarted their title attempt two seasons ago. Four points at the most are required from the three home games in seven days.
Rather than two points dropped, it was a point salvaged for United at Filbert Street, and one for Leicester they desperately needed as relegation rivals creep up on them. Two goals conceded in four first-half minutes saw United wobbling but their fabled powers of recovery and two further goals by Ole Gunnar Solskjaer brought them a deserved draw, even if the home side finished the stronger and stretched Peter Schmeichel to the limit.
"I was happy with a draw from 2-0 down. We didn't do enough to win the game," admitted Ferguson. "International week took its toll and all this talk of us winning the championship today was a good motivation for Leicester." Not for him the consolation of impending Old Trafford celebration. "I was hoping to win it today," he said.
The warmth of a sunny spring morning also drained energy - "I used to campaign for summer football. Bugger that," said Ferguson. English teams, it seems, go hell for leather no matter the conditions and the approach yielded a swift if error-prone game until the latter stages, when it became even more open.
Ferguson sounded intent with his team selection. Almost pointedly to the England coach, Glenn Hoddle, who spoke of young players benefiting from keeping playing, David Beckham was initially rested. Even without him and the injured Ryan Giggs, it remained an attacking line-up, however, with Andy Cole, Eric Cantona, Solskjaer and Paul Scholes all in harness.
Immediately they created chances, with Cole looking sharp, one shot on the turn saved by Kasey Keller who touched another on to the far post. United looked stretched in midfield at the outset, Garry Parker and Neil Lennon taking a grip. The 19-year-old Stuart Campbell later showed promise there.
The United defence consequently reeled. Ian Marshall's looping header on to Schmeichel's crossbar was a warning and a few minutes later Leicester took the lead. As Parker's corner came in from the left, Steve Claridge and Matt Elliott drew the attentions of the United defence and the ball fell to Steve Walsh at the far post to half- volley home instantly.
Soon it was two. Keller's long goal-kick fell to Claridge - the referee Alan Wilkie deemed that Marshall and the challenging David May had missed it, nullifying the Leicester striker's offside position - and he touched it to Marshall. Somehow the ungainly figure made it past Gary Pallister and slipped the ball over Schmeichel to stun United, perhaps to haunt them with memories of this time last season at Southampton.
That echo grew when an unmarked Marshall scooped a chance just wide then forced Schmeichel into a good save from Parker's free-kick to the far post. Within 30 seconds, and that much again from half-time, United had turned the tide, however. From that incident, Pallister fed Scholes, who ferried it on to Cole and his pass infield was shot home by Solskjaer.
The goal, and the introduction of Beckham, gave United renewed belief for the second half and inside five minutes of the restart they were level. Leicester were left complaining that May had tackled Claridge from behind when the ball reached Solskjaer, who sent in Cole for a shot. Keller could not hold it, and the Norwegian pounced again to score.
Thereafter Leicester looked the more likely winners but Schmeichel presented a formidable barrier. After turning aside Lennon's 25-yard drive, he tipped Elliott's header over the bar and followed it up with a splendid save at his near post from Marshall's header.
At the whistle they, too, looked happy with the draw, even if it extended their run of games without a win to nine, a traditional fate for Coca- Cola Cup winners who appear to find it hard to motivate themselves anew for the league. "I'm pleased we rose to this occasion," said O'Neill. His underestimated team certainly deserve to stay up.
Neither he nor Ferguson was chicken-counting, though the United manager came close to acknowledging his team's merited retention of the title. "This year our consistency has not been as good as last year but we have won the games that have mattered, and they have proved they can get to better levels than last year," he said.
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