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English Premiership

Manchester United, Chelsea seal Champions League slots

LONDON, United Kingdom, Jul 26 -Manchester United and Chelsea secured their places in the Champions League next season by finishing in the Premier League’s top four on Sunday.

United beat Leicester 2-0 thanks to Bruno Fernandes’s penalty and Jesse Lingard’s late strike to secure third place ahead of Chelsea, who beat Wolves 2-0 at Stamford Bridge with goals from Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud.

Bruno Fernandes’s penalty put Manchester United into next season’s Champions League at Leicester’s expense
© POOL/AFP CARL RECINE

United just needed a point to consolidate their place in the top four and a tense game with so much on the line for both clubs was decided 19 minutes from time when Jonny Evans and Wes Morgan combined to bring down Anthony Martial and Fernandes converted from the spot.

Evans was then sent off for a wild lunge on Scott McTominay before Schmeichel was dispossessed by Lingard, who stroked home his first league goal of the season to ensure United finish the campaign in third.

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 Lisbon transformed their season.

The riches from the Champions League are all the more important to United due to the economic downturn in the coronavirus pandemic.

And there were more signs of the rebuild that still lies ahead for Ole Gunnar Solskjaer if the Red Devils 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, which put them in position to overhaul Leicester in the table.

Harry Maguire’s £80 million move from the Foxes to United at the start of the season highlighted the financial gulf that still exists between the clubs, but the England international’s nervy start on his return to the King Power was symptomatic of the visitors early on.

Wilfried Ndidi blasted over a great chance from the edge of the box and Kelechi Iheanacho’s scuffed effort was saved by David de Gea when the Nigerian should have look to square for strike partner Jamie Vardy.

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Fernandes is still to experience a defeat in the Premier League as the Portuguese international and the return of Paul Pogba from injury has revitalised United’s pedestrian midfield.

The two linked up as Fernandes fired into the far corner from Pogba’s ball over the top but the former had not timed his run and was flagged offside.

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 keen to remain in the game until the final quarter, but that plan was undone by one sloppy pass from Hamza Choudhury that was pounced on in midfield and Martial released in behind the hosts’ defence.

The ageing legs of former United defender Evans and 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 McTominay deservedly earned a straight red card.

Another Leicester player with United connections was at fault for the second as Schmeichel, son of legendary former United ‘keeper Peter Schmeichel, was caught in possession by Lingard, who gratefully took the chance to end a difficult season on and off the field on a high.

Frank Lampard’s side needed one point from their last game of the season to be sure of featuring in the Champions League for a second successive season.

First half goals from Mason Mount and Olivier Giroud at Stamford Bridge ensured there was never any doubt they would achieve that target.

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Despite some stumbles since the coronavirus hiatus, Chelsea held onto the top four berth that had been theirs for most of the season.

The Blues had not ended a round of fixtures outside the top four since October 6.

Wolves finish seventh and will only qualify for the Europa League if Arsenal win the FA Cup.

Chelsea can cap an encouraging first season in charge for Lampard if they beat Arsenal in the FA Cup final at Wembley on Saturday.

They also have to face Bayern Munich in the Champions League last 16 second leg, but trail 3-0 ahead of the trip to Germany in August.

It is next season’s Champions League campaign that is more alluring to Chelsea, who will bank at least £50 million ($63 million) in prize money and broadcasting revenue from the competition — cash that will help fund Lampard’s on-going overhaul of the squad.

Chelsea have lost 12 times in the Premier League for only the second time since Roman Abramovich became owner in 2003, but Lampard’s development of several promising youngsters has them well positioned to grow stronger next term.

It was fitting that it was one of those fresh faces, 21-year-old England midfielder Mount, who put Chelsea on course for Europe’s elite club competition.

Lampard won’t rest on his laurels and, intriguingly, Kepa Arrizabalaga was dropped as Argentine veteran Willy Caballero started in goal.

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Error-prone Kepa, linked with a move after reports Lampard is looking at potential replacements, has struggled to live up to his price tag as the world’s most expensive keeper since the Spaniard’s £71.6 million ($91.5 million) move from Athletic Bilbao in 2018.

– Chelsea rewarded –

With Kepa axed, Wolves striker Raul Jimenez tried to test out Caballero in the opening seconds but the Mexican’s ambitious long shot was well off target.

Chelsea controlled possession after Jimenez’s optimistic effort, but Mount’s free-kick was headed wide by Reece James.

Chelsea’s new German striker Timo Werner, signed from Leipzig for next season, was watching in a mask high in the stands after flying into London on Sunday.

As he watched his players labour to break down Wolves — a familiar problem for Chelsea this season — Lampard must have wished he could call on Werner and fellow new recruit Hakim Ziyech to bolster the attack.

But Chelsea gradually turned the screw and Giroud headed over when Mount’s cross found him in the six-yard box.

Pedro Neto’s cross almost caught out Caballero until he adjusted just in time to claw it out from under the crossbar.

Chelsea’s dominance was finally rewarded in first half stoppage-time.

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Wolves were furious when Neto conceded a free-kick for a high challenge on Marcos Alonso, who seemed to exaggerate the contact.

But Mount stepped up to curl his superb set-piece over the Wolves wall and past Rui Patricio for his first league goal since March.

Lampard was celebrating again moments later.

Christian Pulisic’s break caught Wolves out of position and Mount slipped a pass through to Giroud, who held off Conor Coady and rounded Rui Patricio before stabbing into the roof of the net.

Giroud’s seventh goal since the coronavirus hiatus left Chelsea with one foot in the Champions League at the break.

So often creaky at the back, Lampard’s men held their nerve and saw the game out comfortably in the second half.

Diogo Jota’s drive forced Caballero to save, but Chelsea were never in danger of losing their prized top four place.

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