As the momentous month of December rolls upon us, signalled, as ever, by the many choruses of 12 Cantonas, Manchester United visit newly promoted Reading, seeking a win that would keep them top of the table before the monumental Manchester Derby next Sunday. Indeed, it is often in December that the title challengers are clarified and the weaker teams fall back in despair. United will take heart from the fact they have not lost an opening fixture in December for 10 years, and few would imagine that this run will end at the Madejski Stadium.
Whilst Kagawa, Nani and Valencia are all still out, the injury list has diminished drastically, just in time for the gruelling winter schedule. Jones, Smalling, Evans and Ferdinand are all fit, although it is likely that Evans and Ferdinand will be the pair to start in the centre of defence. Carrick will make his 250th United start in central midfield, but with Scholes returning after a one match band, and both Cleverley and Anderson putting in good performances against West Ham, Carrick will be unsure of his midfield partner. Despite a relatively lacklustre performance against the Hammers, Ferguson will have been encouraged to see only the second clean sheet achieved in the 16 games since Vidic succumbed to injury.
Whilst Manchester United have won 7 of the last 8 games, Reading, lying in 19th position, have not had it nearly as good as late. Although they beat Everton last time at the Madejski and are in fact four games unbeaten at home, the Everton triumph is Reading’s only victory to date this season in the Premier League, meaning they have failed to win in 12 of their last 13 league fixture. In fact, the Royals are coming into Saturday’s tea-time fixture on the back of losses to Wigan and Aston Villa. There are some bright spots; McDermott will be happy to welcome back winger Jimmy Kebe and midfielder Danny Guthrie to the match squad, however the statistics make for ominous reading.
Given United’s penchant for late goals and barnstorming comebacks, especially this season, Reading fans will be delighted to read that their team has let in the most second half goals this season, 18, and of those, 16 came in the last 30 minutes. On top of that, Reading have lost 14 points from winning positions. By comparison, United have won 18 points from losing positions.
With Nani and Valencia likely to miss out through injury, and Ashley Young horribly out of form, Ferguson may opt for the midfield diamond once again. Although there is an apparent lack of width in this system, it will ensure that United completely dominate the game possession wise, with Reading unlikely to pose a physical challenge in the central battle ground; they have recorded the fewest fouls out of all the Premier League clubs. Rooney may not possess the guile of Kagawa when played in the hole, but the array of attacking talent United present will pose Reading multiple problems. Reading’s game plan will be to exploit the gaps left behind by Manchester United when they attack, and hope their captain, Jobi McAnuff can produce a plethora of decent crosses.
To sum up, Reading will attempt to keep it tight, and I predict that, with the help of their fans, they will manage to do so in the first half. However, in the second half, individual errors will appear, concentration will drop and Manchester United will pounce, securing their second clean sheet in as many games, and running out 2-0 winners.