Rewind to January 2016 and the mood at Manchester United could hardly be more different. Although Louis Van Gaal did not depart until the end of the season, it was in the disastrous conclusion to 2015 that his fate was effectively sealed. The Reds did not win a game in December during a dismal run that included three straight defeats. Title ambitions were shattered and at one stage it appeared as though Van Gaal would not make it to the New Year.
When Manchester United faced Reading at the Majesky in December the sides conceded seven goals between them in a little over 30 minutes. Little wonder that last month’s FA Cup tie at Old Trafford took more than an hour to spring to life, with the Reds eventually running out 2-1 winners as the sides scored three in the final 20 minutes. Yet, after traumatic defeat to Real Madrid last week, followed by a draw with Chelsea in the cup, Sir Alex Ferguson could hardly wish for better opponents than Reading this weekend.
Reading, second from bottom in the Premier League, arrive rudderless following Brian McDermott’s bizarre sacking by owner Anton Zingarevich this week. If ever a manager has become the victim of his own success, then McDermott is surely it after leading Reading to emphatic promotion last season.
The Berkshire side’s managerial loss is surely United’s gain though, with Academy Manager Eamonn Dolan leading the visitors at Old Trafford Saturday tea time. In the week that Ferguson called for United to be more ruthless in front of goal, the Reds will have few better opportunities to hammer home an advantage.
And with Manchester City facing Everton this weekend the opportunity is there for United to stretch a premier league lead to more than 12 points.
Yet, never slow to defend a fellow member of the managers’ union, Ferguson joined widespread bemusement at the timing of McDermott’s departure, with just 10 games to go in the Premier League season.
“Some things you can never understand and football is full of that and to sack Brian McDermott at this stage is strange to say the least,” Ferguson told the press on Friday.
“If they had done it in December or January maybe I would have understood it because he could have brought players in. Brian McDermott has done a good job given the outlay. He spent something like £1.2 million and got in £7.4 million and got them promoted to the Premier League. He was manager of the month in January – I hope I am not manager of the month this month.”
Still, Ferguson’s side takes on the Royals at the right time, with the Scot keen to kill off any talk of a slump in form following a testing fortnight. Fixtures against Reading, and then at relegation threatened Sunderland, in the next fortnight should hand United a decisive advantage before the derby with City at Old Trafford on 8 April.
Nani, Paul Scholes and Phil Jones sit out the Reading tie, but Ferguson can choose from an otherwise healthy squad for the Saturday fixture. The Portuguese winger hobbled out of United’s cup draw with Chelsea, while Jones is still not available after injuring his ankle against the Royals last month.
In defence Nemanja Vidić will likely start after Rio Ferdinand’s call-up to the England squad, while star striker Robin van Persie could return alongside Wayne Rooney in attack. The Dutchman has looked jaded in recent weeks, but played only part of the cup tie with Chelsea.
However, Ferdinand’s surprise call-up after more than two years away from the England set-up has not gone down well at Old Trafford. The veteran defender’s contribution to United has totalled 2x games in all competitions this season, with the 34-year-old’s appearances carefully monitored. Ferdinand’s additional international burden is unlikely to be accepted by the United manager without challenge.
“I need to speak to the United doctor, as we prepare Rio Ferdinand in a certain way and there are certain treatments he has to go through, ” said Ferguson.
“We have to make sure he is going to be OK in terms of the number of games he plays. We have been doing that and it has worked. We have to look at all these things before Rio decides.”
Meanwhile, managerless Reading will be without goalkeeper Adam Federici and winger Jimmy Kébé for the trip north. Third-choice Stuart Taylor will deputise in goal, while striker Pavel Pogrebnyak serves the last of a three match ban. Striker Jason Roberts is set to miss the rest of the season with injury.
Reading has lost five in a row coming into the fixture. Yet, with no new manager appointed and just 10 fixtures left in the season Reading’s owner is unlikely to get the desired ‘bump’ in performances that will save the Berkshire outfit. Not least with Queens Park Rangers and Wigan Athletic finding some form at just the right time. At just the wrong time, with a new bumper television deal set to kick in from next season, Reading already look doomed.
United, meanwhile, has a realistic chance of stretching an already huge league lead this weekend. With a week off, only complacency is likely to stand in the Reds ‘ way. After all, while City manager is trusting in fatigue to hamper United’s season, a week-long break has come at just the right time for Ferguson’s men.
“Football is strange for this,” Manchini said on Friday.
“Sometimes you lose a game, you don’t know why. Maybe one, two, three games. United are playing very well this season, they played fantastic against Real Madrid. But 10 games until the end is a difficult moment because all the teams can be tired after eight months. We hope.”
Should United beat Reading and then Sunderland, hope is surely all that Mancini will have left.
Manchester United v Reading – Premier League, Old Trafford – 5.30pm, 15 March 2013.
United (4-2-3-1): de Gea; Rafael, Vidić, Evans, Evra; Cleverley, Carrick; Valencia, Rooney, Kagawa; van Persie. Subs from: Lindegaard, Smalling, Ferdinand, Büttner, Powell, Anderson, Giggs, Young, Welbeck, Hernández
Reading (4-5-1): Taylor; Kelly, Pearce, Mariappa, Shorey; Leigertwood, McAnuff, Akpan, Guthrie, Robson-Kanu; Hunt. Subs from: Henly, Harte, Morrison, Karacan, McCleary, Blackman, Le Fondre
Referee: Lee Mason
Assistant Referees; S Child and D Bryan
Fourth Official: E Ilderton
Head to Head
Last 10: United 7, Reading 0, Draw 3
Overall: United 10, Reading 1, Draw 7
- United lost a 2-0 against Chelsea in the cup last weekend, but goalscorer Javier Hernández continues to top the minutes per goal rating in the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index having scored eight times in the Premier League this season – a goal every 93 minutes and 30 seconds;
- Fellow striker Rooney has scored 11 in the league this season, coming from 64 shots at goal with 67.2 per cent on target at an average of 145 minutes per goal;
- Rooney has also averaged a pass completed in opposition territory every three minutes and contributed nine assists this season;
- Rio Ferdinand was recalled to the England squad this week – the defender has made 133 defensive contributions this season – tackles, clearances, blocks and interceptions – Ferdinand averages one contribution every 14 minutes and 15 seconds;
- Ferdinand has also completed 208 passes in the opposition half, an average of one every nine minutes eight seconds;
- Opponents Reading lost 2-1 to Aston Villa last weekend, with the Royals now level on points at the bottom of the league with QPR;
- Jobi McAnuff forced Villa’s Nathan Baker into scoring an own goal last weekend – the closest the Reading player has come to a goal this season, having taken 27 shots at goal including 10 on target without scoring;
- McAnuff has, however, contributed seven assists and delivered 64 crosses, the 8th highest among the Index;
- Reading’s wide play has been a feature this season – Nicky Shorey has delivered 53 croses, the fourth highest from a defender this season, while Gareth McCleary is second only to Robin van Persie among the Index’s strikers for crosses delivered with 37;
- Mikele Leigertwood is one of six players to have attempted 100 or more tackles this season last weekend – coming away with the ball after 64.1 per cent of his tackles.
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
“It was agony,” said Sir Alex Ferguson on Saturday night, “the worst defending of this season.” Indeed, the Scot’s statement is one with which many Manchester United supporters can agree, although the plethora of choices in that inglorious competition says much. Once again Ferguson’s side came back from the brink to win on Saturday; this time against a limited, if spirited, Reading side that picked apart United’s back four with an ease that debased many experienced international.
On this evidence the Reds will not just come close to losing more games this season, but drop vital points in a title race that surely begins in earnest with United’s visit to Eastlands next Sunday. With the Reds’ defensive performances seemingly regressing few supporters will view the derby against Manchester City in the comfortable glow that a Premier League lead should bring.
Ferguson’s defence – or more accurately, the team’s paucity of watchful sanctuary – has become the story of the campaign to date. Just five clean sheets in 22 matches says much, while 21 goals conceded in the Premier League is a greater total than Sunderland in 17th place.
Yet, Ferguson’s side sits atop of the Premier League ahead of next weekend’s derby; United’s 36 points based largely on the Scot’s decision to bolster his attacking options last summer. It is a strategy that has partially worked, of course, with Robin van Persie contributing 13 goals in the campaign to date. On this form the Dutchman should come close to matching the 37 goals scored in all competitions for Arsenal last season.
Yet, United’s habitual need to recovered from deficit, married to embarrassingly loose defensive performances, threatens to undermine a campaign that will bring far greater challenges that Brian McDermott’s Berkshire side offered.
“We’re needing to rescue the situation all the time,” admitted Ferguson. “Fortunately we have players who can do that. If we defend like that against Manchester City, I might need to play myself.”
The Scot is unlikely to find the situation quite so amusing if his side fails to fulfill the defensive basics as the campaign draws on. Beaten three times from set pieces at the Madejski, by the conclusion goalkeeper Anders Lindegaard was suffering from the brand of nervous debility so often attached to rival David de Gea over the past 18 months.
Still, Ferguson’s solution in replacing Rafael da Silva with Chris Smalling on 30 minutes had more than a touch of closing the stable door half-an-hour too late. Smalling’s height, explained Ferguson, offered a solution to Reading’s penetration at set pieces. That the former Fulham defender made just a single successful header in more than an hour on the pitch might suggest otherwise.
More important than a rapid-fire substitution was United’s readjustment after half-time with Wayne Rooney and Ashley Young dropping back into wide areas to protect the Reds’ over-stretched full-backs. The pair’s negligence in leaving both Rafael and Patrice Evra exposed to Reading’s wide players in two-versus-one situations brought the hosts much joy during the opening half.
The attacking rejoinder was swift, of course, with Rooney, van Persie, and at times Young, offering significant penetration. Far too much for McDermott’s pourous outfit. Anderson, too, enjoyed some attacking freedom before yet another injury ruined the Brazilian’s evening. None of the quartet offered much to United’s defensive cause though.
Still, there is some pre-Christmas cheer, with United captain Nemanja Vidić due to return in the Champions League dead rubber with CFR Cluj on Wednesday. The Serbian defender will at least add security in the air, even if the 30-year-old has been far from an imperious past this season.
“He’s a battler, an absolute competitor,” adds Ferguson of his captain. “He’s got that dour, uncompromising way of his. He likes defending – that’s what he does.
“I knew Vida was doing really well with the physios. He was doing his football training with them in terms of turning and striking the ball but he came into training last Monday with the first team and did okay.”
It is unlikely, however, that Vidić will start against City next weekend given the Serbian’s sparsity of matches for the club over the past 18 months. Rio Ferdinand and Jonny Evans, both culpable at times for poorly defending the high ball against Reading, will surely start at Eastlands.
The real challenge, of course, is not truly in how Ferguson’s defence shapes up, although Evans form of late is a genuine concern, but whether the Scot can balance a midfield that has swung between exposing it’s full-backs and central defenders in turn with each new evolution in tactical thinking.
Indeed, a flat-two in central midfield has too often been the Reds soft underbelly, ruthlessly exposed, for example, by Tottenham Hotspur at Old Trafford earlier this season. Meanwhile, Ferguson’s decision to play a narrow three on Saturday served only to encourage the hosts to play wide.
In this United’s 70-year-old manager has no easy task against City. Anderson’s injury robs the Scot of one option in central midfield, leaving Ferguson more likely to start with Paul Scholes and Darren Fletcher along side Michael Carrick in a narrow midfield than he is to throw caution to the wind. In any case, injuries to Antonio Valencia and Nani significantly restrict Ferguson’s options in wide areas.
Still, the Scot is prone to surprise against City – none quite so depressing for United supporters as the Reds’ Premier League loss to the blues at Eastlands last season. The United manager’s negative tactical outlook backfired just as significantly as United’s collapse at Old Trafford earlier in the campaign.
And those results may leave Ferguson caught between tool schools of thought; one bent on augmenting United’s fragile defensive unit; the other set up to attack Roberto Mancini’s outfit in its own home. It is, after all, a truism that Ferguson is seemingly yet to find his most effective unit this season.
Still, the defence will be top of mind. “If you make mistakes like that defending then you are going to have to do rescue jobs every week,” said the Scot on Saturday evening. After Saturday’s tactical mess, it’s a statement United’s manager may do well to heed.
Wayne Rooney scored on the last occasion Manchester United played at the narcissistically named Madejski Stadium; Sir Alex Ferguson’s side running out 2-0 winners in 2008. The stat provides neither guide, nor omen, ahead of Saturday’s trip to Reading, although United’s record over the Berkshire side shows just one defeat since these teams first met in February 1912.
And with Reading lying just above the Premier League’s gutter, few expect a turnaround in historical fortunes this weekend. Rooney may fancy adding to a season’s tally that boasts just three goals in 14 appearances.
Injuries aside, Sir Alex Ferguson is likely to select a strong side at the Madejski, with a dead rubber against CFR Cluj in midweek providing air cover should the Scot choose to rest his leading lights before next weekend’s derby. While the 9 December clash with Manchester City is coming over the horizon fast, any thoughts of a comfortable victory this weekend are countered with memories of United labouring to victory over relegation fodder Aston Villa and Queens Park Rangers in recent weeks.
Last weekend’s attritional victory over QPR was followed in quick order this week by another under-par performance against West Ham United at Old Trafford. It has become a pattern in a season that is yet to truly come to life.
Yet, there is much evidence that the onset of winter provides the historical point at which Ferguson’s side truly comes to life – losing just six of more than 50 December fixtures in the past decade. Still, if United is to continue that record, Ferguson’s side must do it without wide men Antonio Valenica and Nani on Saturday.
“Nani and Valencia are still out,” confirmed Sir Alex.
“Nani will be out for four or five weeks. It’s a hamstring injury and you have to take your time with it. Antonio should be fit for next week. He’s got a hip injury, which is painful, but getting better. Nick Powell has had a virus but should be okay for tomorrow and Giggs had a slight hamstring strain but should also be okay.”
Paul Scholes returns from a midweek suspension, while the rash of midfield absentees in wide areas makes for a departure from United’s season-long defensive injury list. With Chris Smalling, Phil Jones and Jonny Evans each fit, only captain Nemanja Vidić remains on the sidelines.
“Nemanja Vidić ;has started training, which is good news,” added Ferguson
“For the last year and a half, I think he’s only played around 10 or 12 games. The best way forward for us is to listen to Vida himself. He has the experience to know what’s best for him and know when the time is right to come back into the team.
“He started training in the week and he did okay. He hasn’t been involved in the real competitive part but at least he’s back training with the first team. It would be nice to play him on Wednesday. I wouldn’t be adverse to playing him on Wednesday. I think he’s done all his work but he needs matches. Good defenders win you the league.”
Meanwhile, under-pressure Reading manager Brian McDermott is without Jimmy Kebe, Alex McCarthy and Jem Karacan through injury, although Danny Guthrie could be available after suffering a thigh problem.
Injuries do little to help McDermott’s prospects. Reading has picked up just nine Premier League points to date, with more than a third of the season completed. Just won win at home, complimented by four draws, and just nine goals tells the story of the campaign. Pavel Pogrebnyak’s brace in the Premier League, complimented by just three from Adam Le Fondre underpins the essential weakness in Reading’s make-up.
Still, with McDermott’s men fighting for survival, and United seemingly keen to ship cheap goals, no matter how profligate the rival, Reds’ will count no points until Saturday draws to a close.
“I’ve never had any doubts. I know how close we are,” McDermott bluffed this week. “We do the right things every day and if we keep doing that, the right results will come our way, I’m absolutely convinced of that. But I’m not stupid, we need results.”
History says the result is unlikely to go his way, yet with three defeats in the Premier League already this season Ferguson’s men hold no guarantees ahead of the trip south.
Reading v Manchester United – Premier League, Madejski Stadium – Saturday 1 December 2012, 5.30pm
United (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard; Rafael, Evans, Ferdinand, Evra; Carrick, Scholes; Young, Rooney, Giggs; van Persie. Subs from: De Gea, Jones, Smalling, Anderson, Powell, Wootton, Buttner, Fletcher, Cleverley, Hernandez, Welbeck, Henríquez.
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Gunter, Gorkass, Morrison, Shorey; McAnuff, Leigertwood, Tabb, Robson-Kanu; Le Fondre, Roberts. Subs from: Taylor, Pearce, Harte, Guthrie, Mariappa, Gunnarsson, Pogrebnyak, Cummings, Hunt, McCleary
Referee: M Halsey
Assistants: D Bryan, L Betts
Fourth official: A Marriner
Head to Head
Last 10: Reading 0, United 6, Draw 4
Overall: Reading 1, United 8, Draw 7
- Reading missed out on a point at Aston Villa on Tuesday, conceding a late header to lose 1-0 in the Midlands;
- Defender Kaspar Gorkss has racked up 84 interceptions and successfully completed 63 per cent of tackles this season, but has managed zero shots on target from nine attempts;
- Jobi McAnuff has dribbled more often that any of his team-mates with 13 and providing 33 crosses to boot;
- Adrian Mariappa has racked up 12 blocks according to the EA SPORTS Player Performance Index;
- Midfielder Mikele Leigertwood continues to underline his importance in the Reading engine room having successfully completed more tackles that any other Royals’ player with 34;
- Meanwhile, Robin van Persie struck after just thirty seconds to secure three points for United last weekend, although the Dutchman now trails Liverpool’s Luis Suarez in the golden boot standings – van persie hasn’t scored a brace in 11 games for United, with the Uruguayan achieving the feat twice in the same period;
- Anders Lindegaard got the nod ahead of David de Gea to start in goal for United in midweek, with little to choose between the pair statistically – Lindegaard has saved 79.4 per cent of the 34 shots on target he’s faced, while De Gea has saved 76.2 per cent of 42 shots on target;
- Michael Carrick set up United’s early strike last week, and was also the side’s second hardest worker for the third consecutive match, covering 6.32 miles against West Ham;
- Rafael da Silva has continued to develop this season and is United’s most successful tackler this season, winning 24 of his challenges;
- United has kept just one clean sheet in seven away games this season.