Ole Gunnar Solskjaer believes Manchester United must get “stronger, fitter and more robust” for the challenges of the Champions League next season after beating Leicester 2-0 to secure third place in the Premier League on Sunday.
United just needed a point to consolidate their place in the top four at the King Power and did enough to edge a tense game with so much on the line for both clubs.
Bruno Fernandes’s penalty 19 minutes from time settled Solskjaer’s nerves before Jesse Lingard pounced on a howler from Kasper Schmeichel in stoppage time to end a difficult season on and off the pitch for the United midfielder on a high with his first league goal of the campaign.
United were 14 points behind Leicester when Fernandes arrived from Sporting Lisbon in January and the Portuguese international has been instrumental in a transformation in the Red Devils’ fortunes.
“From where we were earlier in the season, to end up third is fantastic,” said Solskjaer. “We had our ups and downs and it’s come down to the last game, it’s a wonderful achievement.”
The riches from the Champions League are all the more important to United due to the economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
And there were more signs of the rebuild that still lies ahead for Solskjaer if his side are to close the gap on rivals Liverpool and Manchester City next season as they again looked jaded after a blistering start to their return to action last month.
“It’s been a mini-tournament this restart and it shows. We are a bit tired, leggy, everyone can see we are not the same as earlier but we’ve had to go for it to catch so many points and so many goals and they’ve done it,” added Solskjaer.
“For this team it means better opposition next year and bigger games, we need to step it up. This season we’ve had Europa League and the chance to rest players, now we need to go for every game. We’ve got to get fitter, stronger and more robust.”
Leicester’s good work undone
Leicester resumed the season last month with an eight-point lead over United, but a run of three wins from their last 14 league games before and after the shutdown undid their good work in 2019, which included a run of nine straight wins.
By contrast, United are now 14 unbeaten in the Premier League since Fernandes’ January arrival from Sporting.
“Bringing in Bruno in has made a big difference,” said Harry Maguire, whose 80 million move from the Foxes to United at the start of the season highlighted the financial gulf Leicester had to bridge to stay ahead of United and Chelsea for so much of the season.
“To finish third in Premier League should be a minimum requirement and next season we’ve got to improve.”
Jamie Vardy picked up the Golden Boot despite failing to add to his 23 Premier League goals and came closest to scoring the goal that Leicester needed as his looping header from Youri Tielemans’ free-kick came back off the angle of post and bar early in the second half.
Leicester seemed happy to remain in the game until the final quarter, but that plan was undone when Anthony Martial was released in behind the hosts’ defence.
The ageing legs of former United defender Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan could only haul down the Frenchman for United’s 14th Premier League penalty of the season — setting a new record.
Fernandes is yet to miss from the spot for his new club and coolly sent Schmeichel the wrong way for land the decisive blow.
A miserable day for Leicester was rounded off in stoppage time when Evans’s lunge on Scott McTominay deservedly earned a straight red card.
Lingard was a star of England’s run to the World Cup semi-finals two years ago but his form has suffered with the midfielder admitting family illnesses to his mother and grandad had affected his focus.
But he was alive to Schmeichel’s mistake to dispossess the Dane and roll into an empty net.