Wednesday night’s narrow, nervy 1-0 defeat of West Ham saw United remain a point clear of neighbour’s City at the top. Chelsea’s second consecutive 0-0 draw means the Manchester sides have a 6 and 7 point cushion to the chasing pack. Two horse race? Reading played out a narrow 1-0 of their own, ultimately losing out at Aston Villa (another late goal conceded). The results leaves them on 9 points from 13 games, firmly routed in the bottom three.
With second-placed City playing at 3pm, United could enter the 5.30pm kick-off in second place. With the derby looming, a win – and thus entering next weekend’s clash a point clear – would be most favourable. A home win would still leave Reading in the relegation zone, but they are in danger of being cast adrift if results (only 1 win so far this season) do not improve.
AT A GLANCE
United: Kagawa and Nani remain long-term absentees. Valencia one. Vidic back in training but not ready. Scholes returns from ban. Van Persie top scorer (9). Rooney 5 without a goal.
Away record: P7 W5 D0 L2 F14 A9 Pts15
Away form: W W W W W L
Reading: Kebe and Karacan missing. Guthrie faces fitness test. Adam le Fondre top PL scorer with 3 goals (2 pens). 14 yellow cards so far this season, 0 reds. Jobi McAnuff (5) top assister, also only PL ever-present.
Stadium: The Madejski Stadium (capacity 24,200)
Home record: P6 W1 D4 L1 F9 A10 Pts7
Home form: D L D D D W
Previous meetings at The Madejski Stadium: Reading 1-1 United (23-09-06), Reading 1-1 United (17-02-07, FA Cup) Reading 0-2 United (19-01-08)
Referee: Mark Halsey. 6 games this season, 12 yellow cards given (6 home sides, 6 away). Last refereed United v Liverpool (A).
Of the current squad, Darren Fletcher has made the most appearances v Reading (6). Rio Ferdinand, Michael Carrick and Wayne Rooney (5) can equal this record if they start. Only Giggs, Carrick and Rooney have scored goals against Reading.
Reading have allowed visiting sides 83 shots on their goal in 6 home fixtures (14 avg). Away from home, United have had 93 attempts in 7 games (13 avg).
If all games finished at half-time, Reading would be 9th in the table, with a game in hand. A tally of 19 points (5-4-4) would see them 10 better off than they actually find themselves. A game of two halves, for sure.
Reading have dropped 14 points from winning positions this season. 4 draws and 2 defeats have been suffered when ahead – only Southampton’s record (15) is worse.
United have won every game this season where they have led at half-time (6), Reading are yet to win a game when they have led at the break.
Brian McDermott on Sir Alex Ferguson: “I spoke to him in January about something that I needed to address and he was very helpful to me and giving me good advice. So, that just tells you the calibre of the man and what he’s about.”
“…we have to make sure that we attack the game… we’re playing at home… and anyone that knows Reading Football Club knows that, in the last three years, how difficult a place it is for the opposition teams to come.” McDermott said this week. But, while this may be true, only one home win is the joint-second worst in the division. Reading have, however, lost only once on their own patch – the same as United. Ultimately, they need to start turning draws into victories.
They could be boosted by the return on midfield passer Danny Guthrie. The ex-Newcastle player is decent in possession, and would be a big bonus for the home side. Of the rest of the midfield, only Jobi McAnuff (captain) has been an ever-present this season. With 5 assists already, he is by far and away their most dangerous player. A tricky, pacey winger, Evra (should he start) will have to play well to keep him quiet. The battle could define the match.
In defence, expect to see a back four of Nicky Shorey, Chris Gunter, Sean Morrison and Kaspars Gorkss. The four have started Reading the majority of games for the Royals this season. Adrian Mariappa was drafted in for the defeat at Aston Villa, so may start in the place of Morrison.
With Alex McCarthy injured, Adam Federici will start in goal. The two have shared goalkeeping duties so far this season, but the Australian will make his 7th appearance this weekend. He currently has one clean sheet to his name (0-0 v Norwich). While a decent goalkeeper, he has proved to have a mistake or two in him in the past.
Jobi McAnuff, Mikele Leigertwood, Jay Tabb and Hal Robson-Kanu will make up the midfield, with Jason Roberts and Adam Le Fondre (ALF) up front. The six have started most of the Royals’ fixtures this season, including the last 3.
McAnuff and Robson-Kanu have good pace and trickery on the flanks, with Leigterwood the physical, strong presence in the centre. Jay Tabb is decent on the ball and certainly plays with a bit of ‘bite’. While none are necessarily outstanding individuals, it is a hard working, functional midfield, which could prove hard to dominate.
Roberts is the obvious physical presence up front, who will do his best to be a nuisance to the United centre-backs. Strong and direct, he will cause the defence problems if on the top of his game. His striker partner, ALF, is a much smaller, energetic player. Expect to see him sniffing around for little half-chances in the penalty box. A dangerous player on his day.
Predicted Reading line-up: Federici, Gunter, Gorkss, Morrison, Shorey, McAnuff, Tabb, Leigertwood, Robson-Kanu, Roberts, Le Fondre
Fergie on Reading: “They’re definitely a club that are improving and although they’ve not had a lot of wins, they’re always hard games against them. I expect what we got at Norwich – a really difficult game.”
The victory over West Ham – while not the blistering display many were hoping for after taking such an early lead – ensured we remained a point clear at the top. Most of the outstanding players on the night were in defence – perhaps likely as an all-too-rare-this-season clean sheet was achieved. Jonny Evans was exceptional at the heart of the defence, with Smalling not too far behind. The two stood up to the physical battle with Andy Carroll, winning their fair share of aerial duels as well as blocking and clearing well when they didn’t. Evans, in particular, brought back memories of a younger Rio Ferdinand in the way he glided out with the ball from the back. Graceful, calm, full of purpose. It was a delight to see. Rafael continued his run of brilliant form with another composed, solid display. He’s become so reliable it’s easy to see why many now see him as the league’s best right-back. With the midfield playing a narrow diamond, it was up to him and Patrice Evra to provide the width. In the main, they did this well. Neither player possesses a truly consistent killer final pass/cross – Evra never will – but I hope, for Rafael, it will come.
All that being said, I see the only change to the back four being Ferdinand – rested midweek – to come back into the side in place of Chris Smalling, still working back from injury. Rio and Evans should have their hands full dealing with the power of Roberts and the movement of Le Fondre, their top scorer. Concentration could be key.
In goal, it is likely that Anders Lindegaard – on the back of another decent display including one brilliant save from Carlton Cole – will continue in goal, with David de Gea coming in for the clash against Cluj next week.
With continued injury and loss of form in the wide areas, another outing for the midfield diamond seems likely. Nani is over a month away from fitness, while Valencia could be back for the trip to City. Ashley Young’s downward spiral continued against West Ham (albeit as a sub) while, as I mentioned last time, Danny Welbeck IS NOT a winger. Therefore, I fully expect to see the same front 6 start again this weekend. While Paul Scholes is back from suspension, there was enough on show on Wednesday night to suggest, should the same players be given a little more time together, something nice could be brewing. Some of the passing, especially in the early part of the game, was crisp, purposeful and almost inventive. I, for one, would like to see more of the same. I just hope Fergie does too! Should he, expect to see Carrick, Anderson (who was very good again on Wednesday), Cleverley and Rooney in the midfield area, with Robin van Persie and Javier Hernandez up top.
While a tight diamond should see us control the centre of the park, we will have to be wary of the trickery of McAnuff on the wing. Leaving him one-on-one v Evra could pose us problems, with the Reading captain by far and away their most productive player. Evra will have a job on his hands to keep the Reading captain quiet. The central United players will have to work hard to shift across and double-up as and when it is necessary.
With the Cluj game in midweek a non-event, it will be a chance to give the likes of Rafael, Evans and Evra a rest, as well as wrapping up Rooney, Carrick and RvP for the City game. Smalling, Jones, Welbeck, Buttner and de Gea will surely come in. I doubt Fergie will make too drastic a change to the side for the Reading trip with the City game on the horizon. Going there ahead in the table could be important. The time for rest/game time will come in the week.
Reading will be roared on by a sell-out home crowd; a fast, frenetic start should be expected. Their home record this season suggests it will be a tight game. While United should enjoy the majority of possession (as they usually do, of course), Reading will be dangerous on the counter; concentration at the back, especially with Adam Le Fondre sniffing around, could prove vital. While going a goal or two ahead would be nice for a change, Reading’s record when leading (14 points dropped) tells us that they are equally as vulnerable when 1-0 up as 1-0 down. Our own record of points gained from losing positions this season (18 gained) will be well-known to the Reading players, too. Expect another stirring fight-back should Reading take an early lead.
Predicted United line-up: Lindegaard, Rafael, Ferdinand, Evans, Evra, Carrick, Cleverley, Anderson, Rooney, Hernandez, Van Persie
Score prediction: Reading 1-2 United