Anything Royals can do, United do better

Posted by Jon Keen

In the great days of West Indies cricket, Clive Lloyd was quoted as saying: "It doesn't matter how many England bowl us out for, we'll bowl them out for less". A similar principle of one-upmanship seemed to apply to this incredible match - it didn't matter how many goals Reading scored, Manchester United would just go down to the other end and score one more.

- United edge seven-goal thriller

Contrary to the expectations of many, Brain McDermott started with the same team which put in such a lacklustre performance at Villa Park on Tuesday, but the performance delivered by this very same eleven was quite different. The midfield was a lot tighter and more completive, and their passing was a quantum leap better than it was just four days ago. Out wide, wingers Jobi McAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu were outstanding, causing Manchester United's full-backs problems all evening - so much so that Rafael was substituted by Sir Alex Ferguson midway through the first-half, resulting in him falling into a sulk worthy of any stroppy teenager.

The all-round improvement is in the Royals performance was mirrored up front, where Jason Roberts and Adam Le Fondre were lively and energetic, but even though the Royals' back four looked more solid and organised than in recent matches, it was in defence that Reading lost this game. The movement and speed of thought of the United attackers was simply too good for them to keep out - but that's not to disparage them, as some of the interplay between Wayne Rooney and Robin van Persie, in particular, would have opened up any defence in the world.

But for all the quality up front, yet another ludicrous goal-fest at the MadStad was largely down to the poorness of both defences. Reading took the lead when Robson-Kanu was unmarked as the ball fell to him in the box, and after waiting it to come down he volleyed it superbly into the United net. But the lead lasted just three minutes, as a neat flick wrong-footed the Reading defence and Anderson blasted the ball inside Adam Federici's near post - a long-standing criticism of Federici is a tendency to not properly cover his near post, and this seems to back that up.

Three minutes later Tabb jumped in on Jonny Evans to give away a clear and sloppy penalty, which was ruthlessly converted by Rooney, and in the space of six minutes Royals had gone from a 1-0 lead to a 2-1 deficit. But the defensive lunacy wasn't over, and Reading scored two goals themselves in the next seven minutes, as the United penalty area turned into football's equivalent of the Bermuda triangle, with defenders mysteriously disappearing. First Le Fondre and them Sean Morrison were allowed free headers from Nicky Shorey corners - and suddenly it was 3-2 to Reading after just 23 minutes.

But there were still two more goals to come in this absurd, goal-laden half. First the Royals defence was caught flat-footed as a cross was played behind them to Rooney, who scored his second of the game, and after 34 minutes Reading trailed again, 4-3 when van Persie was played onside by Shorey after a deft flick by Rooney. Shortly before this, a van Persie shot had looked to be over the line, but the goal wasn't given - so justice was done in many ways by this seventh goal.

That's how the breathless first half ended, and the second half was a comparative anti-climax, with minimal action to talk about as virtually a different game was played. Reading seemed to have left their first-half bravado in the dressing room, and it was United who were making all the play, although their best chance, when Federici gifted the ball to van Persie after getting it caught under his feet after a backpass, was blazed surprisingly wide. Reading huffed and puffed looking for the draw, throwing defenders forward, but after seven goals in the first 34 minutes there was no change to the score in the following 56.

So, Reading lose again, but after their first-half display there'll be minimal criticism of them, as to score three goals against the likes of Manchester United is no mean feat. Instead, this match poses more questions than answers for Loyal Royals. Why are they such a Jekyll and Hyde team - so lively and inspired against the top teams and in matches where they're expected to lose, but so uninspiring against teams around the where the points really matter?

If only Brian McDermott could harness the spirit his team showed in this match and recall it whenever required the season would look so much brighter for Reading, but is this just another bump in Reading's inconsistent, topsy-turvy season, or a genuine sign of improvement that might lead to Premier League survival?

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