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.