Football: Ward hands Leicester the initiative: Tranmere are thwarted by the brilliance of visitors' goalkeeper on an afternoon of play-off stalemates

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Tranmere Rovers. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Leicester City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 0

GAVIN WARD, with two saves to which Peter Shilton or Gordon Banks in their pomp would have been proud to lay claim, ensured that Leicester frustrated Tranmere at Prenton Park and will start the second leg on Wednesday as favourites to reach a third successive First Division play-off final.

At Filbert Street, however, Leicester will have to come out and play, something they were conspicuously disinclined to do for all but the opening third of yesterday's game. The visitors mounted a thick blue line of defenders, supplemented by two deep-lying midfielders as well as forwards tracking back, and for the most part it held firm. When Tranmere did breach it, Ward proved himself, for one afternoon at least, a worthy inheritor of his illustrious predecessors' mantle.

The Leicester goalkeeper, who has not held down a regular place since his pounds 250,000 switch from Cardiff last summer, was first called into meaningful action in the 32nd minute. By that stage, though we did not know it, Leicester's attacking ambitions were already fated.

Ian Nolan, the outstanding Tranmere full-back who rejoices in the nickname 'Zip', crossed hard and high from the left towards John Aldridge. The Irish international made powerful contact from six yards, only for Ward to arch backwards and fling out an arm which somehow diverted the ball over.

The next followed a similar move, this time along the right, resulting in a deep cross by Tony Thomas. On this occasion the ball eluded Aldridge though not Ged Brannan, who put his hands to his head in disbelief as Ward twisted in mid-air to make an identical save.

Ward's work was still not done, his third outstanding contribution preventing the move of the match from delivering the goal it merited. Pat Nevin threaded a superb pass through the massed Leicester ranks which found Nolan tearing up on the overlap. From his low centre, Aldridge supplied the deftest of touches, but this time Ward parried his effort at point-blank range.

Chances were otherwise at a premium in a dour contest, although Tranmere ought to have been awarded a penalty just after half- time when Simon Grayson clearly controlled a Thomas cross with his hands. Mr Holbrook, a pedantic referee, can only have been unsighted.

For all that, Leicester deserved their draw. Deprived by injury of seven first choices, including three of their four top scorers, they might well have taken the lead. In the 11th minute, Colin Gibson's cross passed within inches of the far post. Moments later, Julian Joachim raced clear but was thwarted by John McGreal's last-ditch tackle.

Tranmere Rovers (4-5-1): Nixon; Thomas, Garnett, McGreal, Nolan; Morrissey, O'Brien, Irons (Muir, 68), Brannan, Nevin; Aldridge. Substitutes not used: Mungall, Jones (gk).

Leicester City (5-2-3): Ward; Coatsworth, Willis, Grayson, Carey, Whitlow; Blake, Gibson; Joachim (Philpott, 90), Gee (Oldfield, 49), Ormondroyd. Substitute not used: Poole (gk).

Referee: T Holbrook (Walsall).

Bryan Robson is expected to be named as the manager of Middlesbrough tomorrow. Robson, 37, is reported to be receiving pounds 900,000 over the three years of his contract.

Warren Barton, Wimbledon's uncapped right-back, has been called up by Terry Venables for England's friendly against Greece at Wembley tomorrow.

(Photograph omitted)

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