Manchester United and Reading produced some of the craziest 45 minutes in Premier League history, as the Reds opened a three-point gap at the top of the table, after emerging winners of a seven-goal thriller.
While the result might suggest otherwise, this was not an encounter that will be talked about for years – not for the right reasons anyway – as United produced yet another performance of mind-numbingly sloppiness and would have – and should have – been punished by a Reading side that will be left wondering how they did not get anything out of this game, for there aren’t many newly-promoted side that score three goals against United.
Buoyed by results earlier in the day that had seen Chelsea losing at West Ham and City held to a draw at home by Everton, United traveled to the Madejski with only three changes in personnel from the XI that started the game against West Ham on Wednesday. Out went Chris Smalling, Tom Cleverley and Javier Hernandez, in came Rio Ferdinand, Ashley Young and Darren Fletcher.
With less that eight minutes played United were back in the familiar territory of conceding an early goal, as Jonny Evans failed to properly deal with a cross, heading the ball towards Robson-Kanu, who chested it down before unleashing a swerving volley past Anders Lindegaard to put the home side 1-0 up.
United were level five minutes later. Anderson’s flick found Ashley Young out wide on the left, the former Villa man returned the ball to Anderson, who had continued his run in the box and smashed the ball behind Federici to equalise. United were quickly in front as Jay Tabb recklessly barged into Jonny Evans, sending the Northern Irishman tumbling in the box.
Rooney made no mistake from the penalty spot, sending Federici the wrong way, and United looked set for a comfortable win. Reading, and the United back four, though, had other plans. Four minutes after Rooney’s goal, Nicky Shorey’s corner found Adam Le Fondre unmarked in the box and the Reading striker made no mistake against his childhood team, heading past Lindegaard.
History repeated itself four minutes later, only this time it was Morrison who was left unmarked by Evans to head Reading in front, as United were again guilty of awful marking in the box.
As the old saying goes, an animal is at its most dangerous when wounded and United confirmed such theory on the half hour mark. Evra exchanged passes with Young before galloping towards Reading’s box, where he latched on Young’s perfectly weighted back-heel, before squaring the ball back for Rooney who slotted it past Federici.
Rafael was then replaced by Smalling, as Ferguson opted to bolster United’s physical presence at the back, withdrawing the Brazilian who hand endured a torrid afternoon up to that point, much to Rafael’s displeasure as he cut a grumpy figure back on the bench.
There was no sign of grumpiness on Robin Van Persie’s face as he put United in front with 34 minutes played, after evading Reading’s offside trap to receive Michael Carrick’s pass and beat Federici at the near post. The Dutchman should have had a second five minutes later, when the ball kindly fell for him after Federici had brilliantly denied Chris Smalling.
Van Persie’s shot was cleared by Shaun Cumming well inside the goal, but the linesman judged otherwise and Mark Halsey waved play on. It was a frantic finish to an absurd first half that saw Phil Jones replacing the injured Anderson just before half-time, as the Brazilian, one of United’s in-form players, made way for the former Blackburn man.
After such a flurry of goals in the first half, the second half faced an almighty struggle to maintain the same intensity. Indeed it failed to do so, Van Persie’s open-goal miss having dispossessed Federici the only highlight of the second 45 minutes.
United survived a few tense moments at the end, before emerging with another three points, while Reading were left ruing their missed chances against a United side that are miles away from vaguely resembling the quality normally associated with Fergie’s teams.
Sure they score goals for fun and they’ve mastered the old club tradition of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat – United have fallen behind 14 times in 22 games this season – but thinking that the “you score four, we score five” approach could possibly lead to a title, is at best naive and at worst downright deluded.
Still, with a week to go to the derby at Eastlands United have opened a three-point gap at the top of the table and have promised their fans that, while this season might not be successful, whatever the outcome come May it will have been a hell of a ride.