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Premier League Top-four race ends with vindication, elation & dejection

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The measure of how much it means to reach the Champions League was played out in a simple scene after Manchester United secured a place in next season’s competition at the expense of Leicester City.

As visiting players and staff celebrated the final whistle and the 2-0 win that confirmed qualification, a lone figure sat inconsolable in the directors’ box at the King Power Stadium.

James Maddison, such a key part of Leicester City’s exciting early months of the season, sat with his head in his hands, dejected after spending the entire game kicking every ball and fighting for every decision – despite being out injured.

The Champions League is about high finance but it is also about high football ambition. It is the place where elite players want to be. Maddison had seen that dream evaporate before his eyes.

For Manchester United, a domestic season that looked on course for mediocrity until the turn of the year – before the pivotal arrival of Bruno Fernandes from Sporting Lisbon – ends in a success of sorts. And there is still the possibility to add silverware in this season’s Europa League.

It is also a measure of vindication for manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, who has achieved a giant institution’s minimum requirement of a return to the Champions League.

There were celebrations, too, at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea’s season of renewal under Frank Lampard ended with a place in the top four to satisfy owner Roman Abramovich’s ambitions. As they beat Wolverhampton Wanderers 2-0, they were watched by an outstanding signing who will go into next season’s Champions League campaign with them – Timo Werner, brought in for £54m from RB Leipzig.

Leicester’s players, in sharp contrast, looked close to tears at the final whistle. Maddison, it seems certain, will be at the club next term to try again, but that is for the future.

By most reckonings, the Foxes may well have settled for fifth place had it been offered at the start of the season.

The reality is different. The reality is painful.

Leicester established their place in the top four on 24 August and dropped out on 22 July. They had 10 months of hope in this coronavirus-interrupted season; it ended in despair.

Brendan Rodgers’ side faltered and lost momentum at the vital time. After the season restarted in June, they took the lead in injury time at Watford only to concede an equaliser, they lost timidly at Everton and they capitulated to lose 4-1 at Bournemouth with the game under control.

Rodgers, in his assessment of how they fell out of the top four late on, can rightly point to the damaging impact of injuries to Maddison, his most innovative creator and crucial supplier to Golden Boot winner Jamie Vardy,and outstanding England left-back Ben Chilwell.

They were highly significant absentees.

Maddison and Chilwell gave it everything on this final day – but were restricted to giving it, loudly and passionately, from the directors’ box as they sat powerless to influence events.

Leicester have had a fine season, a success in so many respects – but to be in the top four for so long then slip at the last can only be regarded as a desperate anti-climax.

For United and Solskjaer – who was wreathed in smiles as he conducted his post-match media briefing – a third-placed finish looked an unlikely target when they dipped into the transfer market in January to bring Fernandes from Portugal.

This elegant creator has been a talisman as well as catalyst for United, winning nine and drawing five of the 14 league games he has been involved in.

Manchester United’s last loss in the Premier League was 2-0 at home to Burnley on 22 January. Fernandes’ record mirrors United’s own transformation – just the sort of impact you want your game-changing signing to have.

He has been the central figure in overhauling what was, at its worst, a 14-point gap between United and Leicester.

That turnaround was completed at the King Power Stadium. And the emotions could not have been more contrasting as Manchester United’s much-criticised goalkeeper David de Gea ran the length of the field to join in the celebrations for Jesse Lingard’s injury-time goal.

As United’s players gathered in a corner in a jubilant huddle, many of their Leicester counterparts were on their knees.

But United still have much more to do before they can get anywhere near their previous status. A place in the top four is only the starting point – the least they and their vast support should expect.

Manchester United finished 33 points behind champions Liverpool and 15 adrift of second-placed Manchester City. It is not an unfair reflection of their standing and underlines the work that still needs to be carried out.

Chelsea take that fourth Champions League place after surviving a potentially hazardous last game at home to Wolves and manager Lampard is on course for a highly satisfactory return from his first season as a Premier League manager.

Lampard also has the FA Cup final to come against Arsenal so, like Solskjaer with the Europa League, he may yet have tangible reward for his endeavours this season.

There is also the finance to consider.

According to the Sport Business Group at Deloitte, Chelsea and United will earn a minimum of around 55m euros (£50.1m) from qualification for the Champions League.

Leicester will only receive 8m euros (£7.2m) for reaching the Europa League.

Those scenes at the final whistle were not the considerations of hard cash. It was pure footballing elation and disappointment.

The final moments of this unique, interrupted Premier League season saw highs and lows across the country – and nowhere was that more visible than at the King Power Stadium.

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