Tide could be turning for United
Monday 02 December 1996
Alex Ferguson looked like a little boy who had taken an early peek at his Christmas presents and liked what he had seen. The Manchester United manager was bathed in smiles.
It was easy to understand why. So far this season his team have operated like a learner driver; sometimes they go smoothly, sometimes they stall. Yet the Premiership table still makes relatively satisfying reading despite the fits and starts.
All that Ferguson wanted for Christmas was for his team to be in touch with the top once the Champions' League had reached its knock-out phase. That was before, in his words, the blip that threatened to knock all his hopes askew. To have gone through a fraughtful autumn and be within five points of the lead was probably beyond his wildest dreams when United were being taken apart by Newcastle and Southampton and being beaten at home by Chelsea.
For more than an hour United were as grey as the shirts they jettisoned last season. Eric Cantona's strut was in place but his passes were not, Ryan Giggs bewildered opponents with his runs and his team-mates with his distribution and Jordi Cruyff, the intended focal point of the attack, was as lightweight as a leaf in the wind. Frustration appeared to be on the agenda.
The turning point came after 61 minutes. Leicester, for whom Neil Lennon was outstanding, had worked like slaves to defend their goal. When Emile Heskey teed up Simon Grayson 12 yards out, it appeared their labour was about to be rewarded. The visiting captain took careful aim and then shot wide, effectively blowing his side's chances of three points at the same time.
Ferguson responded by switching Roy Keane to the right flank and, when he charged like a war horse to the byline and pulled the ball back for Nicky Butt to slide it into the net, the floodgates opened. Ole Gunnar Solskjaer and Butt again embellished United's afternoon.
Leicester had beaten United's second team in the Coca-Cola Cup on the previous Wednesday but, a goal down, their own reserves evaporated and but for Lennon getting a consolation goal in injury time and the referee blowing the final whistle when he did they would have suffered an unedifying beating.
"When the breakthrough came," Ferguson said, "it looked like we would score every time we went down the field. I'm satisfied with the result, I don't think it would have been fair on Leicester if we had got more."
Apart from the points, United were chiefly satisfied by Gary Pallister's return. The England centre-half has suffered enough idle matches thanks to a persistent back problem and, most recently, with a knee injury that required surgery. So when he was involved in a car crash last Monday he felt that fate was ganging up on him.
"It was a terrible smash," he said, "and given what had happened to me recently I was delighted to emerge unscathed." He survived the collision with Leicester and, assuming he gets to the airport in one piece, should play against Rapid Vienna in the Champions' League on Wednesday.
There was a perceptible change of tide during this match. Whether it has come soon enough for Europe, United will find out this week. If not, a fourth Premiership title in five years is within their compass.
Goals: Butt (75) 1-0; Solskjaer (85) 2-0; Butt (86) 3-0; Lennon (90) 3-1.
Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; G Neville, May, Pallister, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Butt, Giggs (Poborsky, 85); Cantona, Cruyff (Solskjaer, 57). Subtitutes not used: McClair, Johnsen, Van der Gouw (gk).
Leicester City (5-3-2): Keller; Grayson, Prior, Watts, Marshall, Izzet; Lennon, Parker, Campbell (Lewis, 82); Claridge, Heskey. Substitutes not used: Lawrence, Hill, Robins, Poole (gk).
Referee: M Bodenham (Cornwall).
Bookings: Manchester United: Pallister. Leicester: Heskey.
Man of the match: Lennon.
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