Leicester City failed to oblige the headline writers by concluding its dream run to the Premier League title at “The Theater of Dreams” on Sunday. Yet the 1-1 draw with Manchester United at Old Trafford does simplify the math.
Leicester can ensure its first top-flight league crown in its 132 years as a club with draws in its last two matches–at home to Everton on Saturday and away to Chelsea on the final Sunday–otherwise a victory in either game or any slip by Tottenham in its three remaining games will be enough.
As it stands, Leicester’s players could win the title sitting on their sofas on Monday evening watching Dele Alli-less Tottenham play at Stamford Bridge.
A draw at Old Trafford is a good result at any time for any team. After a difficult start, against an opponent desperate to keep its own hopes of a top-four finish alive, Leicester looked every part the champion.
“It’s Man United at the end of the day and it’s Old Trafford and we knew it was going to be tough,” Danny Simpson, the Leicester right back, told Sky TV. “We dug deep, done what we done all season and showed our character. It would have been nice to win it here but it’s a good point. We’ll see what happens tomorrow and keep going.”
When Anthony Martial found a huge hole in the Leicester penalty area and drilled the home team ahead after eight minutes, Manchester United looked capable of sweeping Leicester aside.
“The first 15 minutes we was a little, little scared,” Leicester manager Claudio Ranieri said. “United started very well and moved the ball very well and was very difficult for us.
“After the goal I said ‘we have to react immediately’ and, fortunately, at the first free kick we score a goal.”
Wes Morgan leveled with a headed goal from a set piece after 17 minutes. After that, even though Leicester had only 30% of possession, it was in control.
“After our goal, I think we play the better,” Ranieri said.
Ranieri said that Leicester has missed striker and leading scorer Jamie Vardy, who has been suspended, but he will return against the unpredictable Everton on Saturday.
Leicester won't be at full strength upon his return, though. Danny Drinkwater, one of Leicester’s midfield workhorses whose free kick assisted on Morgan's goal, was sent off with four minutes to play for a second yellow card.
The match, which always had a hard edge, offered plenty of scope for one-eyed Leicester fans to scream conspiracy (along with a few more obscenities), with the tension rising with each passing minute.
Marouane Fellaini of United could have been sent off for elbowing Robert Huth in the face. Marcos Rojo brought Riyad Mahrez down in the United penalty area, but no spot kick was given.
On the other hand, Drinkwater’s second yellow card, for a foul on Memphis, was in the area and should have been a penalty. Simpson gave Jesse Lingard a tug when the United player was racing in on goal. That too could have been a red card had referee Michael Oliver seen it a different way.
The match also provided a reminder that goalkeepers are footballers too. Kasper Schmeichel has a long and accurate clearance and is one of the best in the Premier League at starting counterattacks. On Sunday, his two best moments were wild scrambles and clearances just outside his area.
Whatever their strengths, Morgan and Huth are not quick. They can be caught by a rapid attack. On Saturday, Schmeichel twice saved them by racing out to boot the ball off the toes of attackers.
The first was in the first half, as Lingard bore down. The second came in added time. Huth, struggling to keep up with Martial, slid the ball across his own area toward Memphis. As Schmeichel dived and slid, Memphis, showing discretion, jumped out of the way. The ball flew off the keeper and out toward Wayne Rooney. Schmeichel bounced to his feet and sprinted after the ball, hacking it away as Rooney took aim.
So after the draw, Leicester can win the title on Monday, with the squad watching the outcome of a different match instead of competing on the field.
“Tomorrow I think we’ll try to get together as a team,” Simpson said. “We’ll see what the manager decides.”
Well, the manager is off home for a quick visit to his mother in Italy and could miss the moment his club seals its place in history. "I'll be the last to know," he told reporters.
Yet there was an emotional edge in his voice as he spoke after the game. He seemed on the verge of tears. Perhaps watching the Spurs match, especially with his players, does not appeal to him.
In any case, he knows that if he and his team do their work, it does not matter what Tottenham does at Stamford Bridge.
“For us it’s important to continue to dream, continue to work,” Ranieri said. “Three matches ago I said in my mind Tottenham will win all the matches.”
Tottenham, of course, slipped up against West Brom last week. Even if Ranieri’s right about the remaining matches, and he’s been right a lot this season, then Leicester are in a position to ignore Spurs. It just needs to win once more. Sunday’s draw probably just delayed the inevitable.
But, as Morgan told Sky: “It’s not ours till we’ve got both hands on the trophy.”