If it was the Race for Sixth, United ended it in pole position. They are not going to challenge Liverpool or City for the title this season. That much is clear already.
But this victory over Brendan Rodgers’ hitherto unbeaten side suggested that they may not be destined for ignominy of mid-table, either, as many of their detractors claimed they would be. In light of United’s worst start to the league season for 27 years, many were confidently predicting a Leicester victory at Old Trafford and another dollop of pressure being loaded on Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but even though it was a closely contested match, it was United who secured a deserved victory and moved above their opponents into the top four.
Marcus Rashford scored the United winner from the spot after seven minutes and nearly added to the margin of victory in the closing stages with a free kick that hit the crossbar but the win was forged in the midfield engine room where Scott McTominay dominated for United and nullified the influence of Youri Tielemans and James Maddison for long periods.
Harry Maguire was booed lustily by the Leicester fans after his £80m summer move from the King Power Stadium but he, too, excelled. United, who lost their previous home game to Crystal Palace, is still a long way away from being ready to mix it with City and Liverpool but in their long climb back towards the top, this felt like it was at least a baby step in the right direction.
United started strongly, tearing into Leicester, pressing them relentlessly, refusing to let them settle. McTominay, who is growing in stature with every game and becoming a key player in Solskjaer’s plans, was at the heart of their energy and their determination.
He overwhelmed the creative players in the Leicester midfield of whom so much had been expected. Ashley Young has been pilloried by some United fans but it was his superb early ball to Daniel James that set the tone for United when they had the ball.
He curled it with pace into the inside left channel in the opening minutes, James took it well on the run and was shaping to shoot when he was brought down by Ricardo on the edge of the area. Andreas Pereira’s resulting free kick was heading for the top corner until Kasper Schmeichel scrambled to his right to push it away.
The goalkeeper was so committed that his momentum sent him crashing into the post as the ball went behind for a corner. Schmeichel used to practice saving shots in the Old Trafford tunnel 20 years ago. His father, Peter, a former United great, was watching from the stands.
United kept Leicester at bay after that. The visitors managed one ball over the top to Vardy that allowed the striker to try to chase Lindelof down but Lindelof was equal to it. Just. And with seven minutes left, it was United who almost extended their lead when Rashford crashed a free kick against the Leicester crossbar.
Leicester went close in injury time when Wilfred Ndidi lashed a volley just wide but United clung on. Fourth place in the Race for Sixth was not a bad return at the end of a promising afternoon.