Neville takes opportunity and sinks Leicester

Manchester United 1 Leicester City 0
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The Independent Football

Gary Neville's first goal of the season, the product of an inspired display by Cristiano Ronaldo, enhanced Manchester United's prospects of finishing second in the Premiership last night and left Leicester's chances of avoiding relegation looking increasingly forlorn.

Gary Neville's first goal of the season, the product of an inspired display by Cristiano Ronaldo, enhanced Manchester United's prospects of finishing second in the Premiership last night and left Leicester's chances of avoiding relegation looking increasingly forlorn.

The United captain's opportunism leant a dash of colour to a strictly monochrome match and lifted his understrength side to within three points of Chelsea, who visit Old Trafford on 8 May. The FA Cup finalists also have a game in hand. Leicester, who face a six-pointer at Blackburn on Saturday, are still six points from safety with time and hope ebbing away.

Neville admitted that United's performance left much to be desired, yet stressed the importance of claiming the runners-up spot. "We don't want to be in a position whereby we have to qualify for the Champions' League,'' the England defender said. "We also want to get nearer to Arsenal. We can't let them win the title by too many points.''

Ronaldo was deservedly exempted from the criticism which United's overall form warranted. "Cristiano was very confident and always wanted the ball," Neville added. "People think you can just settle in at a club like this. He's only 19, but the way he has come from a foreign country and adapted to the English game has been incredible."

The breakthrough came after typically mesmerising footwork by the Portuguese, cutting in from the left, had led to a low cross into the Leicester six-yard area. Nikos Dabizas ought to have averted the danger but the ball squirmed loose for Neville to claim only the fifth goal of his career.

Yet Leicester could have scored inside the first minute. Presented with a routine clearance by John O'Shea's back pass, Roy Carroll kicked straight to Muzzy Izzet 15 yards out. Leicester's captain was so surprised that he also miscued, his shot going for a throw-in.

The makeshift nature of United's line-up ­ there was no Roy Keane, Ruud van Nistelrooy or Ryan Giggs, although all three are expected to return at Portsmouth on Saturday ­ was clearly a source of encouragement to Leicester. Unfortunately for their manager, Micky Adams, they were simply not good enough to exploit their good fortune. "The plan was to try to win the game," Adams said. "We weren't embarrassed and we showed a bit of pride, but we couldn't capitalise on the team United put out.''

During a flat first half, Nicky Butt briefly lifted a subdued crowd with one long-range shot that was charged down and another which Ian Walker held under the bar. The boredom was broken by a heated exchange between Neville and Paul Dickov, as well as by a booking for Ricardo Scimeca after he illegally halted Ronaldo's progress.

Leicester, one sensed, would never have a better opportunity to win at Old Trafford. With the interval beckoning, Marcus Bent was unchallenged as he met an Izzet free-kick barely six yards from goal, only to send his header wide.

It was easy to imagine the crockery flying in the United dressing-room during Sir Alex Ferguson's half-time talk. However, there was no immediately discernible increase in the tempo of their attacks, in which Diego Forlan and David Bellion were at best peripheral figures.

Ronaldo was a dazzling exception to the greyness around him, his shimmying at times resembling an audition for Riverdance. His 55th-minute shot, parried by Walker with Paul Scholes unable to force in the rebound, sparked a long-overdue and ultimately productive spell of pressure for United.

Goal: G Neville (56) 0-1.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Carroll 5; G Neville 7, Brown 6, Silvestre 6, O'Shea 6; Bellion 3 (Djemba-Djemba, 82), Butt 6, Scholes 6, Ronaldo 8; Saha 5, Forlan 2 (Fletcher 5, 57). Substitutes not used: Howard (gk), Giggs, Solskjaer.

Leicester City (4-4-2): Walker 7; Scimeca 4, Dabizas 5, Heath 4, Thatcher 5; Freund 5 (Gillespie 4, 66), Izzet 5, McKinlay 4, Stewart 5 (Scowcroft 4, 66); Dickov 6 (Guppy, 78), Bent 4. Substitutes not used: Nalis, Canero.

Referee: M Halsey (Lancashire) 7.

Bookings: Leicester: Scimeca, Dabizas, Thatcher.

Man of the match: Ronaldo.

Attendance: 67,749.

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