Man United tightened grip in damp squib

Posted by Mark Payne

Wayne Rooney scores for a lacklustre Manchester United in their Premier League victoryagainst ReadingGettyImagesWayne Rooney scores for a lacklustre Manchester United in their Premier League victoryagainst Reading

This blunt 1-0 victory over flailing Reading was the first good news United have had in a fortnight, but when your biggest problem is complacency you have little to worry about. There was so little anxiety about the outcome of this match that the home side almost forgot to win it. Gleeful predictions were made in the lead up of a meaty United victory, the real thing produced something closer to a wake. Old Trafford is still reeling from the manner of United’s Champions League exit.

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Reading were not in the best of shape upon arrival and were enduring a run of four consecutive defeats. Their manager being ripped from them earlier in the week meant they expected to turn that sequence into five. At kick-off they resembled quivering bread thieves being poked into the coliseum expecting to be devoured by gladiators and lions.

What they found instead was a Manchester United side with eight changes from the one that had drawn with Chelsea in the FA Cup and was still licking its wounds. United had been superb against Madrid and magnificent for the first fifteen minutes against Chelsea. They received no reward for either of those efforts and perhaps being lacklustre was their protest.

The speed, precision and quality of the football played in the matches against the Spanish champions was breathtaking. In comparison, United’s efforts here were almost embarrassing. Although there were no obvious, howling mistakes, most of the play occurred between the two 18-yard boxes and the zippiest player on the pitch was 39-year-old Ryan Giggs. It was clear early on that this would not be the glorious victory that had been expected.

Injustice can be a great motivator and its powers of persuasion were all over the winning goal. Ferdinand’s muscular run and Rooney’s deflected, but determined, strike won this game and both players have had an axe to grind recently.

The crime that had enraged both was omission, Rio’s from the national squad and Rooney’s from United’s team against Madrid. In a game where their colleagues could barely cut open a blancmange, these two managed to make the game’s decisive contribution.

Nobody in the crowd grumbled about the lack of pizzazz on the pitch. Manchester City and Liverpool both lost earlier in the day and that is always sufficient to buoy local mood. But enjoying the misfortune of others is only a supplementary pleasure. United have no European Cup quarter-final to look forward to and they are not happy about it.

The 15 point lead they take into the international break is impressive, but in some ways it deflates the season. After yesterday, there is almost no challenge left in the League and, without European exploits to distract, it is no wonder things are subdued.

United have seven players on England duty this week and will make up the core of the team that represents the nation. Ferdinand will be among them, but he would rather be lining up with those same team-mates against Galatasaray next month.

Retrieving the title from Manchester City remains a lustrous a prize, and United have certainly tightened their grip. But they are playing like a team who feel they deserved more.

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