Victory No 22 of the season for Sir Alex Ferguson in the League was also the 15th defeat of his counterpart's short tenure at Leicester City. Dave Bassett, who was managing a football team for the 1,011th time in his career, would have liked nothing more than to bow out in different circumstances, but relegation from the Premiership was the veteran's final, anti-climactic, offering.
Leicester played well enough, but there has long been an eerie sense of gloom hanging around Filbert Street. Yesterday, the arena was full but the crowd had come anticipating the equivalent of a gladiatorial slaughter. No matter that it proved to be anything but, these Foxes lost their bite months ago.
"It's been a hard battle," Bassett admitted, "I'm sad we haven't been able to stay in the Premier League. The players are disappointed in the dressing room, but I think they've known for a little while now that we were likely to go down."
Ferguson made his intentions clear by selecting what can only be described as an experimental XI. The record books will show that his team won the game and pocketed the three points to stay in the hunt for the title, but the Reds took a devilishly long time to get going.
"They've got so much quality that there is always a way out of trouble for them," Bassett mused. "At one point, they brought Quinton Fortune off and Ruud van Nistelrooy on. What else do you need to say?"
Yesterday, though, was less about victories for the defending champions and all about the end of a footballing era. Bassett was in charge of Leicester for the last time before his highly rated deputy, Micky Adams, takes over the managerial reins tomorrow. Judging by the warm tributes he has been receiving all week, including a special presentation before the match where Sir Alex awarded his old adversary a commemorative vase, you suspect that even Harry Houdini will not try to escape from the comfort of retirement.
"I couldn't tell you for sure whether or not this is the end of Dave Bassett's managerial career," he said, "but I have a job to do here [as director of football] and let's see how it goes."
As predicted, this was no great send-off party – either for Bassett or indeed his doomed Leicester City team. Relegations are not often jolly affairs, but this was a truly drab offering. High winds and a lunchtime kick-off played their part, but they alone do not explain why Manchester United, in particular, were unable to move out of second gear for the entire first half.
Ferguson, it would seem, can chop and change most of his personnel, but the fact remains that without their inspirational captain, Roy Keane, United are not the same proposition.
"I just felt we looked lethargic in the first half because of our European match [against Deportivo la Coruña] in mid-week," was Ferguson's reasoning. "It was windy and sunny, so this had all the makings of an upset. But we dug in and got the result. The win is all that matters at this stage."
Leicester, meanwhile, fought gamely and created the bulk of the chances in the first half. Not surprisingly for a side who have scored just 24 goals in the League, the Foxes lacked the necessary cunning to break the deadlock.
As early as the third minute, Matthew Piper's cross was only half-cleared, but Brian Deane shot straight at Fabien Barthez's deputy in the United goal, Roy Carroll. Two minutes later, Deane controlled the ball well, turned, and then found Paul Dickov lurking in the penalty box. Bassett's last signing had his back to goal, but somehow managed to flick the ball up before hooking an audacious overhead kick just wide.
United were restricted to shots from distance and were lucky not to be behind at the break. Six minutes before the interval, Stefan Oakes floated a free-kick into the visitors' area, which Gary Rowett nodded down for the advancing Dickov, but the former Manchester City striker volleyed the ball over the goal from all of four yards.
Such was the dearth of chances created by Ferguson's men that it came as little surprise when their top scorer, Van Nistelrooy, was introduced four minutes after the restart. The Dutchman's arrival immediately gave his team impetus as well as a focal point, and, within 10 minutes, United had the lead. Phil Neville launched a long throw into the Leicester area which Callum Davidson failed to clear.
Ole Gunnar Solskjaer took one touch to control the ball with his chest before dispatching a ferocious right-foot drive under Ian Walker's diving body. It was the Norwegian's 20th goal of the season – his best-ever return in a United shirt.
Leicester, to their credit, would not give in, and the Deane-Dickov partnership did enough to suggest that the Midlands club can make a swift return to the big time. In truth, they have little choice. There is a new stadium standing proudly across the road from Filbert Street, and Leicester need to be in the Premiership if they are to fill the 32,000 seats on a weekly basis.
"The fact that the crowd were in good voice at the end of this tough game was a tremendous show of unity," Bassett said. "It augurs well for the future of Leicester City Football Club."
Leicester City 0 Manchester United 1 Solskjaer 61
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