United's display of ifs and Butt

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On the eve of their greatest need this season - to prove that despite some damning evidence to the contrary they can compete with the best in Europe - Manchester United yesterday took an inordinate time to beat a Leicester side that had already embarrassed them.

Four days earlier Leicester had removed United from the Coca-Cola Cup, though if anyone at Old Trafford really cared about that season-clogging competition they would surely not have sent out a team unrecognisable from yesterday's which was full strength and included Gary Pallister who, significantly, had missed several of their recent poor performances. Were it not for the fact that they urgently needed to secure points to provide a better position in the Premiership, they would probably have again fielded another clutch of reserves. Such is the financial and morale-boosting importance of this week's European tie against Rapid Vienna.

Not that Leicester would give much credence to the argument that they only beat United reserves. A reserve to United would be a gilt-edged asset to Leicester, except that they do have Emile Heskey, back-heel king of Filbert Street and the most saleable striker they have possessed in years. Yesterday, though, their first problem was to give Heskey some service which, as United thundered forward from the start was never likely to be straightforward.

Pallister's reappearance immediately brought United solid defensive confidence and a springboard for their unrelenting early pressure which lacked consequence only as a result of haphazard shooting from Roy Keane and, especially, Ryan Giggs. So Leicester's gritty defending and effective midfield organisation, controlled by Garry Parker, began to interrupt United's flow without altering the prevailing impression that another victory was highly unlikely.

Glimpses of Giggs's mystic footwork were all very well but with Eric Cantona unsure whether to commit himself forward, United found themselves frustrated and certainly not building the confidence needed for their European test.

In need someone to apply a finish, United replaced Cruyff, who had been dominated by Julian Watts, with Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. But what above all they needed was something special from Giggs who, in the second half, certainly became more positive. In the meantime Leicester should have accepted one of their few clean chances. When Heskey squared the ball across the penalty area, Simon Grayson froze as he faced a huge target and missed it by an embarrassing distance.

Eventually United eased their problems. In the 75th minute Keane came stamping down the right side and levelled a cross forcefully towards the near post. Kasey Keller made an attempt to cover but by then there was a confusion of bodies in his way and Nicky Butt thrust out a foot to score a goal that reflected the scrappy nature of the bulk of United's performance.

Whatever the nature of their first goal, it certainly had the effect of rousing them to a finish that destroyed Leicester but, in reality, put them in a better light than they truly deserved.

Giggs finally managed to get to the goal line and pull the ball back for Solskjaer to clip in. Four minutes from the end the score became considerably more cruel to this worthy Leicester side when Butt was again well positioned to take the ball through, exchange passes with Eric Cantona and shoot in.

By the time Neil Lennon had won some heart for Leicester with a last- minute low shot past Peter Schmeichel, United's heads were turning to bigger events ahead.