Landslide avoided but Royals still pointless at Old Trafford

Posted by Jon Keen

Wayne Rooney's deflected effort gave Manchester United the lead against ReadingGettyImagesWayne Rooney's deflected effort gave Man United the lead against Reading

So, Reading lost again, this time 1-0. But then again, Reading were almost always going to lose this one, at the home of a rampant Manchester United who are running away with the Premier League. But Royals confounded those who were predicting a massacre, going down by a single goal - and that was only conceded due to a cruel deflection.

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With results elsewhere going against Reading, they went into this match seven points away from safety, and Old Trafford is one of the very last places a team in Reading's position want to visit. With no permanent manager, no first-choice goalkeeper or striker, no wins in five matches and confidence at rock-bottom, this was a real baptism of fire for Eamonn Dolan.

He opted to start with a team similar in personnel to that favoured by predecessor Brian McDermott, but reverting to the 4-5-1 which served so well through January. The key differences were Jobi McAnuff playing in the centre of midfield and Noel Hunt as the lone striker, with big Russian Pavel Pogrebnyak still suspended. Ranged against them was a strong Manchester United team boasting the likes of Robin van Persie, Ryan Giggs and Wayne Rooney. The bookmakers' odds of 16-1 for a Royals win reflected the chances most people gave them of getting something from this game.

But they started brightly enough, attacking United down their flanks, but, as too often this season, there was a lack of quality in the crossing, and Hunt was hopelessly outnumbered by the United defenders. But when you're down, Lady Luck rarely smiles on you, and Reading found themselves a goal behind after 20 minutes when a Rooney drive was deflected off Alex Pearce and into the Reading net, out of reach of 'keeper Stuart Taylor.

But despite that misfortune, Royals certainly weren't outclassed in the first-half, and might have had an equaliser from a drive from Hal Robson-Kanu that fizzed just wide, grazing the outside of the United post. They attacked whenever possible, defended in numbers when required and with 46% of first-half possession they certainly weren't outclassed by the runaway leaders of the Premier League.

It was noticeable - and very pleasing - that they were passing the ball much more frequently and much more accurately than under McDermott in recent weeks, as well as sticking to basics and not trying to be too ambitious. But for a team like Reading often the simple stuff is best and for once it was a pleasure to watch the team play, rather than cringing at their latest mishaps.

The second half started in the same vein, with Reading winning two swift corners, and they might have had a penalty when Adrian Mariappa was blatantly shoved over in the United box. But of course teams like Reading don't get awarded penalties at Old Trafford and so play carried on. But for a period it was all Reading doing the attacking, even if those attacks came to naught. And when United did attack, Royals defended stoutly, with Jem Karacan making a superb diving tackle to save a certain goal just before the hour mark.

But as the match progressed United's class came to the fore and Reading found themselves defending more and more. Taylor pulled out a stunning full-length save to keep out a van Persie free-kick and with 20 minutes to go Dolan made a switch to try and emulate McDermott's comebacks from January. Bringing on Adam Le Fondre and Nick Blackman, he switched to 4-4-2 with the aim of posing some different problems to the United defence and turn the game round as the matches against Newcastle, West Brom and Chelsea were.

If anything, though, that made Reading's play less cohesive, and although they continued to attack they didn't realistically look like scoring. As the game reached its last 10 minutes United started to turn the screw to try and make the three points safe. Attacking fluently down Reading's right flank they carved out a number of half-chances, but again Royals kept these out and the game ended with a one-goal defeat.

So, what have we learned from this? Not that much, to be honest. We know that Eamonn Dolan has an organised team and the determination and character are still there in spades. But sadly he has exactly the same group of players as McDermott had and these same players just don't seem to have the quality to produce anything special at this level of the game. Hard-work, effort, character and determination will only get you so far in the Premier League, and despite the boost in confidence that this game will bring, a defeat is still a defeat, bringing zero points, and Reading's fate still looks sealed - whoever the manager may be.

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