Disjointed Man United grind out another win

Posted by Musa Okwonga

Manchester United began this game with the opportunity to go 15 points clear of Manchester City in the Premier League table, with their closest title rival having earlier lost 2-0 at Everton.

Either United began this game with a lack of intensity or Reading were defensively superb -- perhaps both -- but for the first half hour or so, they barely threatened the Reading goal.

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The home side began with Ryan Giggs and Anderson in the centre, supporting Ashley Young, Danny Welbeck, Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie further forward, which, on the face of it, is a very dangerous front six. Yet it was telling that the opening goal, and only goal in the 1-0 win, came after a sprint from deep by Rio Ferdinand, who stepped through three challenges before chipping the ball on the run into the path of Rooney. The England forward, much maligned of late by the media, struck a powerful drive that caught a crucial deflection on its way past goalkeeper Stuart Taylor.

However, this advantage did not enable United to play with greater freedom. Or rather, Reading did not. Their pressing as soon as Manchester United came anywhere near their final third was superb. Having lost manager Brian McDermott only a few days before, they were expected to succumb meekly, but, smartly marshaled by caretaker manager Eamonn Dolan, they were utterly compact at all times. When they did break, they were not wasteful. Not long from halftime, Hal Robson-Kanu turned on the edge of the area and released a swirling left-foot strike that David De Gea, soaring to his right, watched anxiously to safety.

The second half saw Reading start with urgency, to the extent that they had almost 75 percent of possession after five minutes of the second period. For about 10 minutes after the interval, they vaguely threatened an equaliser, and Nemanja Vidic was extremely fortunate not to concede a penalty for his push on Adrian Mariappa. The Reading defender fell to the floor directly before the eyes of the referee Lee Mason, yet no point to the spot came.

The rest of the game passed without great incident. The chief preoccupation seemed to be getting a goal for van Persie, whose decisiveness in and around the penalty area has avoided him in the past few matches. Here he tried to force the issue, hitting a firm free kick from 30 yards, which the impressive Taylor parried away, and attempting a spectacular overhead kick with his right foot that sailed safely over the bar. Rooney and Giggs also went close with attempts late on, but in truth the scoreline did not deserve such varnish.

Whilst Reading's policy of containment was very good -- only undone by a deflected shot -- it must be said that Manchester United were oddly soporific going forward. Anderson failed to provide the impetus that should be his calling card, and Alexander Buttner's enthusiasm was not matched by his effect. Young, over on the flank, was as ever a picture of toil, but he rarely found his way to the byline.

Without Michael Carrick -- who, tellingly, was added to the frag late to control the tempo -- they lacked someone to build attacks against such a well-composed defensive strategy. There is much talk of who should be signed to play alongside Carrick, but on this evidence Sir Alex Ferguson should be looking very hard for his understudy.

In the short term, though, that is immaterial. Manchester United's defence proceeded to the exceptional streak of 547 minutes without conceding a Premier League goal and, in doing so, completed as thoroughly one-nil a performance as could be imagined. Thus they move 15 points clear of Manchester City with nine games to go, needing only 13 points to regain the championship. Their advance to that summit now looks inexorable.

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