Against Leicester's familiar defiance, which, had it been allied to a more positive attacking policy could have denied United their reward, the champions acted as if they expected an easy game. Admittedly, they were without David Beckham, but their victory depended significantly on the individuality of Andy Cole, who grabbed two of the few chances to be provided. One of them, a spectacular overhead kick, was like a timely hammer knocking on the door of England's coach, Kevin Keegan, in the approach to the matches against Scotland. As Sir Alex Ferguson said: "That was a magnificent goal. It put him in the frame for England. As far as our performance is concerned it was... satisfactory."
Two of Ferguson's more significant remarks after United had untidily beaten Sturm Graz to confirm their place as group winners in the European Champions' League were that his team never seemed to take the easy course of action but, in spite of that, they had acquired an appetite for the big occasion.
Getting back to the everyday business of League action has been the problem both for team and fans, who tend to treat some Premiership games more as a cause for loyalty than full-throated devotion. So the question was whether or not confronting Leicester was a big enough occasion. Recovering top place ought to have been a considerable incentive.
Everyone knows that you underestimate Leicester at your peril. They nag you, work at any weaknesses, run you until the muscles need a squirt of WD40, or whatever the physio's equivalent may be, and, above all, treat "lose" as a repugnant, four- letter word. A swirling, unpredictable wind yesterday also favoured directness and simplicity of passing, which has long served Leicester well.
As a result, although Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Andy Cole quickly caused fissures to open in their defence, once Robbie Savage and Neil Lennon got some meaningful possession in midfield and Emile Heskey dared to match his strength against that of Mikael Silvestre and Jaap Stam, there was equality that lasted half an hour.
The fact that Roy Keane, whose form of late has been so productive, was having difficulties wresting control away from Leicester's middle five was ominous for United. Neither was Paul Scholes getting the better of Muzzy Izzet. So it took some delightful improvisation to raise United out of their stodgy opening. Phil Neville offered a long ball into the penalty area, Solskjaer headed on, and Cole devised an almost perfect overhead kick. The ball clipped the post and went in behind Tim Flowers.
The goal could hardly be said to inspire United. Their football remained fragmented, usually breaking up on Leicester's defensive defiance. Nevertheless, moments before half-time, a centre from Scholes, on the by-line, was diverted inwards by Ryan Giggs, and Andrew Impey managed to clear off the line to concede nothing worse than a corner. The increasing influence of Giggs, who at last gave better service to Cole and Dwight Yorke, served to make United approach the second half with proper acceptance that this was a match still full of problems.
Clearly United's greater commitment to offence left them vulnerable to Leicester counter-attacks, one of which saw Heskey put clear by Izzet. Heskey ran virtually to the near post, yet his shot from such an angle still seemed likely to defy the degree of difficulty and slip in beneath Mark Bosnich. It beat the goalkeeper but Silvestre rescued United on the line.
That served as a warning to United, who began thinking of preservation. And Tony Cottee, a Tom Thumb against Stam, suddenly began thinking big, even winning the ball in the air. However, just as he was warming to the job he was taken off, leaving Matt Elliott to join Heskey. At least it became less of a mismatch in terms of size.
That, in the end, the United crowd found their voice and the team discovered a safe margin of victory was largely the result of Cole's individual finishing. Throughout the afternoon he was offered few real goalscoring chances, so accepting two was a good proportion.His second goal was a matter of hit, miss and hit again. Yorke had given him possession in a congested penalty area. Cole snatched at his first shot, which Lennon blocked, only to see the ball return to Cole, who this time hit in a more accurate shot.
For the final few minutes, the home crowd cheered every accurate United pass. No wonder they had been so quiet in the first.