Football: Wily Foxes frustrate United

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It has been a summer of compliments for Leicester City. As well as a clutch of awards Martin O'Neill received a fan letter from Alex Ferguson, then the Navy PTI who took them through their pre-season training ordeal said they were fitter than his other Premiership clients.

Since the other club was Wimbledon this was praise indeed and it was easy to believe on Saturday as Leicester contested an enjoyable but goalless draw with Manchester United. City's work-rate, a feature of last season, was as phenomenal as ever despite the humidity.

While such application would also have impressed Ferguson it would not earn his admiration in itself. The Manchester United manager may have expressed his appreciation of Leicester's "team effort" in his letter to his Leicester counterpart but he knows there is much more to the Foxes than just running.

There has to be, if hard work and organisation was enough Northern Ireland would have beaten Germany last week. Leicester have a bit more and that was underlined, to Ferguson's chagrin, at Filbert Street.

While O'Neill is happy, in public, to go along with the "just like Wimbledon" image, in private he is pleased when his peers see behind the sweaty facade. While not adverse to following the dictum, "if in doubt, hoof it out", Leicester like to pass the ball along the ground and both through and across the midfield. A more direct side would have little room for the slowing but wily Steve Claridge, or the thoughtful Garry Parker. Nor would they have signed Robbie Savage who looks an eloquent passer and well-balanced dribbler.

The pounds 400,000 signing from Crewe is the latest of several cute signings from the lower divisions. "I can see why people look abroad," said O'Neill after a difficult summer searching for players but the example of Savage, the rapidly improving Muzzy Izzet, Steve Guppy, Parker, Neil Lennon and Matt Elliott, all signed for less than pounds 5m, shows there are good players to be found in the Nationwide and reserve leagues. Moreover such players tend to be hungrier and harder-working than those imports who have less to prove.

Take Savage, whose long blond locks, Porsche, and acrimonious departure from Crewe might suggest a "spice boy" image. Not so, for Savage has already seen the dark side of the game. Three seasons ago he was released by Manchester United after three years playing alongside Ryan Giggs, David Beckham, Paul Scholes and company in United's famed youth team. That same night he suffered a car crash which left him temporarily without feeling on his left side and pondering his future. "I feared my career was over and didn't have a clue what I'd end up doing," he said.

It took a move from forward to midfield, and the schooling of Dario Gradi, to get him back to a Premiership club and the experience has made him both aware of his fortune and eager to make the most of it.

He has had to wait, however, so well have Leicester begun (they have defeated Aston Villa and Liverpool) that O'Neill had the luxury of leaving Savage on the bench at the start along with Claridge. The latter's replacement, Ian Marshall, is a typical example of a player making the most of his talents and, judging by the reverse pass that freed Emile Heskey early on, adding to them. Heskey, profiting from Henning Berg's unfamiliarity with United's offside trap, should have scored then, and again soon after. He is a player of great promise, who worried United all afternoon, but he will never be a finisher of the quality Michael Owen is destined to be.

As Berg settled, and United adjusted to the early loss of Jordi Cruyff, Leicester were pushed back and United were thrice denied by the post. The worst miss was by Teddy Sheringham, from a yard out just before half- time, and, after four poor and goalless games, he may be beginning to wonder, in the quiet moments of the night, if he is going to become the latest striker to be overwhelmed by the United aura.

"He's not playing with a recognised striker," said Ferguson, "and that's not suiting him. We are still trying to find the right blend." What United needed was a Claridge, or a Mark Hughes, a player to hold the ball and be a focal point in attack. Sheringham has the capacity to do that, he has played as a centre-forward and has good ground skills, but, as usual, he dropped deep into midfield.

With Scholes doing the same, and both Beckham and Giggs drifting inside, it became very crowded. It also played to Leicester's strengths, a busy, snapping midfield and a solid central defence, rather than stretching and getting behind them. By the end it was, as Ferguson noted, like a practice match - attack versus defence. With an exhausted Leicester pulling 11 men behind the ball the defence won.

Afterwards O'Neill breezed into the press room and said "let's wrap it up quick lads, I want to get back and watch the cricket". With an Australian as chairman who could blame him?

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Prior, Walsh, Elliott; Kaamark, Izzet, Lennon, Campbell, (Savage, 59), Guppy; Marshall (Claridge, 59), Heskey. Substitutes not used: Fenton, Parker, Andrews (gk).

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, Berg, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs; Sheringham, Cruyff (Scholes, 8). Substitutes not used: McClair, Mulryne, P Neville, van der Gouw (gk).

Referee: D Gallagher (Banbury).

Bookings: None.

Man of the match: Schmeichel.

Attendance: 21,221.

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