Defeat despite heroics at Old Trafford

Posted by Jon Keen

Reading's nascent FA Cup run ended, as most predicted, at Old Trafford as they were beaten 2-1 by Manchester United Monday. But the Royals can hold their heads up after their heroics, where they made one of the best teams in the world work all the way, as well as forcing them to resort to some cringe-worthy time-wasting antics as they tried to run the clock down with Reading taking the game to them and pressing for a late equaliser.

-- United hold off Reading
-- Video: Ferguson comments

As expected, Brian McDermott started his "Cup team", a 4-4-2 setup to with Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt up front together, with a number of other changes from his current first-choice Premier League starters. Although this certainly wasn't a reserve team - every starter Monday had done so in the league this season - it was certainly a case of continuing to keep faith in some "fringe" players and continuing to give them a chance in the Cup.

It was clear from the start that Reading were determined to hassle and harry United, and they did this from the start, playing a high line and trying to deny the home team time or space on the ball. United, chasing a treble, are too good for that though, and could easily have been three up within the first five minutes. That they weren't was largely down to Adam Federici, who had an outstanding game and made a series of fine saves, including a superb double-save midway through the first half.

As well as Federici's heroics, the Reading defence were immense all evening, throwing themselves in front of shots and stifling the many United chances, and succeeded in keeping United at bay throughout the first half. Although the first half wasn't pretty watching for Reading fans - as United had the bulk of possession and the best chances - Reading certainly weren't out of it as they had decent attacking possession themselves and weren’t scared to take the game to United at every opportunity.

Just before half-time, one of the most significant events of the night took place, with Nani coming on to replace the injured Phil Jones, who had looked increasingly ineffective at right back. From that moment, United looked much better, and Nani was to have a significant effect on the result.

The second half started much as the first half had, with United flooding forward and applying pressure on the Reading goal, but again Federici and his defence kept them at bay. But it was increasingly clear as the match went on United's grip was tightening further and further. Reading were looking more and more tired, with their defensive line pushed back ever deeper, as they found it progressively harder to get the ball away and relieve the pressure.

A goal was inevitably coming, and it did after 69 minutes. To Reading’s credit, they had held firm long enough to force Sir Alex Ferguson to bring Robin van Persie off the bench in an effort to break the deadlock six minutes earlier. While Reading were soaking up the pressure, they failed to fully clear the ball, and it was played to Nani, who slammed it past Federici. Heads were down and the result looked certain now, and doubly so after Hernandez glanced a near-post header past Federici just three minutes later.

But between these goals Reading had had arguably their best chance of the game, but Le Fondre was unable to beat David De Gea with a firm volley. But, of course, this is Reading, who never know when they're beaten, so once they were two goals down they somehow found themselves able to play with more freedom, attacking whenever possible and worrying United at the back.

Sloppy marking allowed Jobi McAnuff to pull one back from close range after 80 minutes, while United offered only breaks forward. The last 10 minutes were much more equal, with Reading, although clearly tired out after such a herculean effort, pressing forward constantly but sadly unable to grab the crucial equaliser.

So, the Cup run is over, but no one really expected anything different when the balls were drawn three weeks ago. The financial differences between these clubs meant there was only ever likely to be one winner, but the important thing was that Reading emerged with heads held high and spirits intact, having made a real game of it and making Manchester United fight all the way.

The Royals and their supporters can travel home proud, and secure in the knowledge that taking this level of fight and confidence into the next Premier League game, at home to Wigan on Saturday, can only be a good thing – because, in the Premier League scheme of things, a win against Wigan in such a crucial relegation scrap will always be far, far more important than a Cup tie where the odds were always stacked against them.

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