“Champions of England, more recent than you.” As chants go, this one does little to capture the imagination. But as Leicester’s fans mocked their visiting counterparts with these words after just 15 minutes of play, here was a stark reminder that, for all their prestige, history and silverware, Manchester United are no longer the untouchable, unshakeable giants they once were.
Indeed, for the second time in one week Jose Mourinho’s men were left reeling by a late sucker punch, this time delivered not by Bristol City’s Korey Smith but Leicester’s Harry Maguire. The defender’s late intervention, from less than six yards out, ensured the spoils were shared here at the King Power Stadium after 90-odd minutes of thrilling, end-to-end football.
Juan Mata’s brace had looked to be enough for the visitors, having put United in control after Jamie Vardy’s opener – his 50th Premier League goal. But the lessons of Wednesday’s trip to Bristol were not heeded and now, at the half-way stage of the season, United sit 13 points behind leaders and rivals Manchester City.
Against the run of play, it was hosts who took the lead in trademark fashion. After 25 minutes of sustained pressure, the Leicester counter-attack whirred into life. Having sucked in the vast majority of United’s team, possession was snatched back inside the Foxes’ final third and, after a quick tap back from Vardy himself, Wilfred Ndidi fired his men forward with a searching ball down the heart of the pitch.
Riyad Mahrez gave chase, shook off the pursuing Chris Smalling with a sudden halt in pace and, there, bearing down on goal, shoulders arched, scurrying away, was Jamie Vardy to slot home his 50th Premier goal.
Up until that point, United had largely dictated play. Kasper Schmeichel was twice called into action early on, first pushing over a deflected Jesse Lingard shot with his finger tips before getting down low to deny a left-footed Paul Pogba strike.
Even Romelu Lukaku, of all people, tried his luck, attempting a spectacular over-head bicycle kick that ended with a rather unspectacular outcome: a goal-kick.
But having enjoyed the greater share of possession and chances, it seemed only fair that United finally got their goal. After sending play out to Anthony Martial on the left, Mata wormed his way into the box as his teammates worked the ball back to him, via a Lingard set-up. Squeezing the ball past the looming Maguire and Wes Morgan, the Spaniard picked out the far left corner to draw United level.
Leicester refused to roll over, though, and had the chance to restore their lead two minutes late. From a free-kick on the left, the ball was whipped in dangerously to United’s six-yard bard where an unmarked Maguire broke free to meet the delivery. The defender opted to bring it down, instead of hitting it first time, and was made to pay as the United defence pounced on his heavy touch.
The second half picked up from where the first one had ended, with the Foxes enjoying the first major chance. With a twizzle of that willowy left leg, a shake of his shoulders and a burst of pace towards the United byline, Mahrez set the Foxes up for what should have been a second, firing the ball across the goal mouth with real menace. Demarai Gray failed to make contact altogether, having presumably blinked, while Christian Fuchs saw his effort cleared off the line.
United immediately returned the favour via their own counter-attack. Picking up play on the left, Lukaku drifted in from the right and threaded through Martial on goal. But the Frenchman’s nerve snapped like a twig, and what should have been a simple tap-in ended up in row Z of the King Power Stadium.
But the visitors pushed on and were soon rewarded. Martial made up for his earlier transgressions by winning a free-kick on the edge of Leicester’s box. Up stepped Mata to curl home a sublime free-kick into the top right corner and put his side ahead after 60 minutes.
United’s lead could have been extended 10 minutes later when Lukaku once again slotted through a teammate in behind the Leicester defence, this time Lingard. The Englishman rounded Schmeichel but could only find the right-hand side post.
Marcus Rashford was soon introduced to the fray and made his presence immediately felt, skipping past substitute Daniel Amartey, who had replaced the injured Danny Simpson, only to be felled by a late shoulder charge. Amartey was shown his second yellow and sent for an early shower.
The youngster was it again with 10 minutes to go. Finding himself one on one with Schmeichel, he attempted to emulate Lingard’s earlier efforts but had no look in taking it around the Danish goalkeeper who managed to get a vital hand to the ball.
Had Mourinho’s men taken any one of these chances then victory would have been secured but, as Maguire broke free in the visitors’ box to meet a late free-kick and slot home the equaliser, it became evident that, once again, this was not to be United’s day.