The popular notion that there are no easy games in the Premiership was given the lie again in the Midlands yesterday, when Manchester United might have matched Chelsea's recent 5-0 victory away to Wolves if they had not taken key players off ahead of a midweek Champions' League visit to Stuttgart - or if they had a Hernan Crespo in reserve.
If United have a potential weakness, it is their dependence on Ruud van Nistelrooy, which hardly mattered here. He racked up his fifth Premiership hat-trick for the club to snuff out Leicester City's promising start, with no penalties, diving or unseemly controversy needed in a match without a single yellow card. That gives him seven goals in as many games, and keeps United within a point of Arsenal after his penalty failure cost the champions victory against them amid all last Sunday's shenanigans at Old Trafford.
Paul Scholes's return without having needed a hernia operation encouraged Sven Goran Eriksson and added another scoring option to United's armoury, though on this occasion he was the creator, baffling the home defence with his constant flitting between midfield and the front line. When he dropped deeper, Roy Keane stole forward, and was thus able to put his name on the scoresheet for the first time in a scarcely believable 41 matches, stretching back 18 months.
For Leicester, the relevant statistics were a bucket of cold water dousing the summer's dreams. Last beaten in their smart new stadium on Boxing Day, they had played 56 games without losing two in succession - but Liverpool and then Man-chester United had not been on the fixture list before. "I don't think I could have asked for any more, but the gulf in class showed," said their manager, Micky Adams, who confessed to "a little kidology" in talking up his team's chances during the week.
Given their financial predicament 18 months ago, the Foxes have had to be clever to avoid being snared like Derby County and Ipswich, who were relegated with them; so clever that the Football League brought in a draconian 10-point deduction last week for any other club trying to pull off the same trick of using administration to avoid paying debts.
They began brightly yesterday and Marcus Bent, now with his seventh club in six seasons, might have put his latest team ahead in the 11th minute. John O'Shea, less secure in defence than Rio Ferdinand, failed to react to an unkind bounce, Tim Howard was not out of goal quickly enough and Bent dinked the ball wide of the far post.
"We're up and in their face," crowed Dave Bassett, Leicester's director of football, who was acting as guest summariser for a local radio station. There was soon egg on faces, however, as United scored twice in little more than a minute. Scholes made both, which might have been prevented had any defender managed either to restrict his space or pick up the men he picked out. In the 15th minute he was allowed to collect a throw-in and chip a pass for Keane, running onside behind the back line, to knock in. With Leicester and their supporters still in a state of shock, Scholes knocked another perfect pass for Van Nistelrooy, who had also timed his run perfectly, and was able to beat the unprotected Ian Walker with equal ease.
The Dutchman might have had four goals by half-time. His control let him down for once after a cross from Darren Fletcher - enjoying an impressive Premiership debut on the right of midfield - dropped over Frank Sinclair's head, and also jabbed wide a low centre from Ryan Giggs. But in the 44th minute, he effectively settled the result by bringing down Ferdinand's long pass for another easy finish as the hapless Sinclair slipped.
Whatever Adams said to his side at the break had no effect, for the marking was lamentable again six minutes after the resumption, when a clever pass with the outside of Eric Djemba-Djemba's foot sent Van Nistelrooy clear of three dozing defenders to defeat Walker again. The Cameroon international had replaced Keane at half-time, and with more formidable opposition in Stuttgart awaiting, Scholes and Giggs soon made way for Diego Forlan and Nicky Butt.
Walker, it transpired, had been suffering from back spasms, a problem not improved by constantly picking the ball out of his net. He was spared further punishment after little more than an hour, allowing Danny Coyne from Grimsby Town a daunting first taste of the Premiership. Coyne was given a brief period of respite as the home side pushed forward gallantly, achieving a sort of respectability in the 73rd minute; Sinclair rose under little challenge to head in Muzzy Izzet's corner. The lively Bent then hit the bar, but the champions' supporters had long since begun their celebratory anthems, including a peculiar repertoire of anti-England chants.
Sir Alex Ferguson - was he joining in? - did not appear at all put out by the failure to keep a fourth successive clean sheet, blaming his crop of substitutions and adding: "It was a first-class performance, one of our best of the season. The passing and movement for the first goal were marvellous and Ruud was terrific. There can't have been many as good as him over the years, and he could have scored six." That he didn't was one of the few things Leicester had to be grateful for yesterday.
Leicester City 1
Manchester United 4
Keane 15, Van Nistelrooy 16, 45, 52
Half-time: 0-3 Attendance: 32,044
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