What should have been a perfect day for Manchester United en route to a 20th League title became an unexpectedly anxious one as Reading, who have twice pushed them hard already this season, did so once more.
After Manchester City's defeat at Everton offered them the chance to move 15 points clear with only nine games remaining, United looked tired and unconvincing – despite having made eight team changes – before accepting the invitation.
From the start the Old Trafford crowd were mostly as subdued as their team, whose tempo was below the required level almost throughout. It took Wayne Rooney's 16th goal of the season to rouse them, and even then the level dropped off again.
Reading, under the temporary management of Eamonn Dolan, a former product of the West Ham academy, performed with spirit but did not quite have the confidence or quality to take advantage of United's lassitude. After a fifth successive League defeat they seem destined to return whence they came last May. Although losing by only one goal kept them off the bottom, they are now seven points from safety.
"It was what you expect from a team fighting for their lives," said United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. "But they didn't really make chances and we defended quite well."
It was his team's fifth successive clean sheet in the League, one in which Rio Ferdinand, who will join up with England tomorrow, was outstanding.
For Dolan the whole experience was in contrast to his previous match as a manager, which was in charge of Exeter City for a Conference game nine years ago. Yesterday there were 25 times as many people watching –plus a live television audience – who saw his team hold out for 20 minutes before United finally stepped up a gear and took the lead.
If the opening half was quieter than the teams' previous League meeting, that was to be expected, since at the Madejski Stadium last December seven goals were scored in an extraordinary first 35 minutes – four of them to United, which was how the scoreline remained.
In contrast, Reading did better in holding Ferguson's side at bay for more than an hour when they visited Old Trafford for an FA Cup tie last month before submitting 2-1. So three times now United have pipped them by a single goal.
Dolan, whose twin brother, Pat, is Brian McDermott's agent, had spoken to the deposed manager before the game and made three changes, which involved strengthening the midfield with an extra man and ditching the team's previous 4-4-2 formation. Noel Hunt, who was left on his own in attack, unexpectedly found himself facing Ferdinand as well as Nemanja Vidic, the former starting for a third successive game for United.
Since November he has normally appeared in alternate matches due to concerns about his back problems. But Ferdinand it was who set up the only goal. In the 21st minute he carried the ball upfield, beat Mikele Leigertwood with a deft flick and supplied Rooney, whose shot from 25 yards deflected up off Alex Pearce and into the net.
Dolan was a permanent fixture in the technical area even as the driving rain increased his discomfort, although until that point there had been little to worry him.
By half-time, the home side had not threatened again and Reading's one chance was an admittedly good effort by Hal Robson-Kanu, taking Garath McCleary's pass and shooting a fraction wide from outside the penalty area.
That should have been a warning, likewise Reading's bright start to the second half, during which Vidic was fortunate not to concede a penalty for a push on Adrian Mariappa when defending a corner. "It was a clear penalty," Dolan said. "But I think the referee thought I was on work experience and a little 1-0 loss for Reading would be OK."
Even then there was a scramble before United got the ball away and Mike Phelan, their assistant manager, was quickly sent to the touchline to inject some urgency. It came at last around the hour mark as Ashley Young's clever turn put Alex Buttner in, Jem Karacan sliding in painfully to concede a corner. Next, Robin van Persie, out of sorts and seeking a first goal in five games, had his powerful free-kick beaten away by Stuart Taylor, the former Manchester City goalkeeper who was standing in for the injured Adam Federici.
Javier Hernandez must have felt he should be on, but when a change was made it was Michael Carrick replacing Young, who limped away but should also be fit for England. Five minutes of injury time added to the anxiety around the ground, but United held on.
If their day was less than perfect, the table this morning looks good enough.
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