There was a moment during the chaos of Manchester United’s Premier League fixture with Reading in December that a 4-3 scoreline looked not only unlikely, but preposterous. The two sides would surely score far more than that. Yet, amid two of the worst defensive performances of the current se ason, the sides conspired to see out a goalless second period after seven were struck in the first.
The sides meet in different circumstances on Monday night with an FA Cup quarter final place at stake. Neither likely to defend with such apathy at Old Trafford, even if each has greater priorities in the season ahead.
United, far from fresh after draining encounters against Everton and Real Madrid in the past week, will be much changed. Meanwhile, the visitors’ manager Brian McDermott is likely to prioritise league points with Reading still in the drop zone.
Still, United’s handsome Premier league lead, allied to a positive result in Madrid last Wednesday, ensures that talk of another treble is now rife. Too early, perhaps, but with United in a strong position on three fronts manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s challenge is as much to set expectations for the season to come, as it is a motivational driver.
“I just look at the next match, thinking about winning the next match,” said Ferguson, who may change his entire team for Reading’s visit.
“The reality is don’t get carried away by it, particularly in the FA Cup, anything can happen. You don’t want to be a shock, that’s for sure.
“So Monday, in many people’s eyes, it’s Reading: ‘Yeah, we’ve just been to Madrid, it was a great night and Monday will take care of itself.’ Monday can’t take of itself. We have to take care of it, we have to have performance which respects our opponents and the fact that the FA Cup can produce shocks.”
Ferguson will certainly rest forwards Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, although the Dutchman has seemingly asked to be involved against Reading.
Meanwhile, with Paul Scholes still suffering from a knee injury and Michael Carrick due a rest, both Anderson and Tom Cleverley could start at Old Trafford. Forwards Nani, Ashley Young and Javier Hernández will rotate into the side.
Goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard could come into the side, although the Danish international was a principle culprit in United shipping three against Reading earlier in the campaign.
Whatever the changes on Monday, Ferguson believes his squad is well equipped to challenge, especially with the quarter-final carrot of a match at home to Chelsea on offer.
“The incentive is there to get to the quarter-finals and I don’t think that will be lost on the players, no matter what side I pick,” added the 71-year-old.
“We’re taking nothing for granted. With an FA Cup tie, you always have to expect the unexpected. It happens so many times, you just don’t want to be a casualty or a shock. We’ve had a few over the years.
“I think there’s a good spirit in the place and they’re all contributing,” he said. “Whatever side I pick, I know we’re expected to qualify.
“That’s what happens with United. It doesn’t matter what team you play, you’re expected to win. But I couldn’t be more pleased than I am at the moment really with the form and the spirit in the place.”
Meanwhile, Reading make the trip north with Premier League status the season’s only real priority, although the Royals arrive in the side’s best form of the season, having lost just one match in the past seven.
The Berkshire side scored four against United in December, with McDermott’s side repeatedly punishing the Reds’ inability to deal with balls delivered from wide areas. Yet, Reading’s adventure at the Madjesky may not be repeated at Old Trafford, especially with McDermott’s side due to take on fellow strugglers Wigan Athletic next Saturday.
Midfielders Jimmy Kebe and Mikele Leigertwood are doubts with injury and unlikely to be risked. Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt could start, but veteran Jason Roberts and Alex McCarthy are definitely out.
And if Reading arrive at Old Trafford with alternate priorities, then there is also a risk of McDermott’s side being caught in the headlights. It is a risk exposed in McDermott’s obsequious sycophancy this week.
“Sir Alex Ferguson won’t take anything for granted, there’s no doubt about that,” said the Reading manager. “To move on the way they did from last season, to take that on to the pitch and that hurt, tells you the power of the people there.”
History is also on United’s side too – the Reds have won 10 and lost just one of the 18 previous competitive matches between these sides. Meanwhile, in FA Cup matches United has won six of the past seven.
It points to United’s safe passage and a – potential – quarter final tie against Chelsea to come.
Manchester United v Reading – FA Cup, Old Trafford – 8pm, 18 February 2013
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Jones, Smalling, Vidić, Büttner; Cleverley, Anderson; Nani, Giggs, Young; Hernández. Subs from: de Gea, Ferdinand, Rafael, Evans, Evra, Nani, Kagawa, Carrick, Valencia, Powell,Cleverley, Welbeck, Rooney, van Persie.
Reading (4-5-1): Federici; Pearce,Mariappa, Harte, Kelly; Hunt, McAnuff, Carrico, Guthrie, Karacan; Pogrebnyak. Subs from: Taylor, Shorey, Morrison, McCleary, Leigertwood, Kebe, Le Fondre, Blackman
Referee: Andre Marriner
Assistant Referees: Darren England and Steve Child
Fourth Official: Philip Dowd
Head to Head
Last 10: United 6, Reading 4, Draw 0
Overall: United 9, Reading 1, Draw 7