Manchester United 3 Reading 2: Ferguson kept young by golden future

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The Independent Football

There was something apposite about members of the cast of the TV drama Lost joining the celebrities at Old Trafford's final fixture of 2006. The storyline to the Premiership title race has just become even more implausible, with Manchester United surprising Sir Alex Ferguson by moving six points clear and Chelsea proving that, while they may not have lost the plot, they have certainly misplaced it.

First-footing comes naturally to Ferguson, who turned 65 yesterday, yet the pursuit of the championship trophy was not supposed to pan out like this. At the same stage last season, United were 11 points adrift of Jose Mourinho's team. There appeared no good reason - especially after the spat between their two outstanding players during the World Cup - why they should fare any better this time.

Instead, the mantle of the "Special One", which the Chelsea manager had dubiously awarded himself, has passed to his fellow Portuguese, Cristiano Ronaldo. Everything the United winger touches is turning to gold, as evinced by six goals in two and a half matches. In contrast, Mourinho is dabbling with the role of King Midas in reverse, the absence of two key characters, John Terry and Petr Cech, having left the champions defensively bereft.

Ferguson had stated that if United were top going into New Year's Day, which sees them in action at Newcastle while Chelsea prepare to visit Aston Villa tomorrow, he would consider they had "a chance".

However, he had clearly not envisaged Chelsea dropping home points to Fulham or to Reading, whose entourage was able to offer an intriguing snapshot of the state of the big two after visiting both in the space of five days.

Steve Coppell, who is arguably Ferguson's principal rival as manager of the half-season, has an obvious emotional preference as a former United player. Yet Coppell stuck to the typically pragmatic rationale that the "key factors" would be how the contenders coped with European football and the extent to which they were affected by injuries.

United's squad is not as deep as Chelsea's, although they are about to be reinforced by Henrik Larsson, but even with Ronaldo in such devastating form Ferguson appears less dependent on particular individuals than his adversary.

Kevin Doyle, Reading's leading scorer and a self-confessed United fan since boyhood days in Cork, encapsulated his impressions by saying: "We got a draw at Chelsea and lost at United, which tells its own story." The club's owner, John Madejski, also gushed about meeting Sir Bobby Charlton and Wayne Rooney before perpetrating a Freudian slip.

"There we were, playing the champions," Madejski said before correcting himself. "Well, they're not there yet, but I hope they will be. They deserve it. I like the style they play." Did the bad blood over Cech's injury at Reading influence his opinion? "No. I just prefer them as a footballing team."

Madejski's reply underlined another peculiar twist in the tale of United and Chelsea, namely the way in which Roman Abramovich's vast outlay at Stamford Bridge has led to Chelsea displacing United as the epitome of corporate football. United, for all the reservations about the Glazer family's motives and methods, now find themselves in the unaccustomed position of carrying the hopes of many neutrals in the title run-in.

This shift in perception is personified by Ronaldo, whose role as Rooney's winking nemesis in Gelsenkirchen six months ago today has been replaced by burgeoning respect. "I may be ravaged by time," his soon-to-be OAP manager remarked with tongue tickling cheek, "but players like Cristiano keep me young." Ronaldo's flurry of goals is no festive fluke; the statistics demonstrate that he makes more attempts, on- and off-target, than any other Premiership performer.

His dancing feet and pinpoint cross created the first goal, a header by the previously invisible Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. Ibrahima Sonko soon glanced Reading's equaliser (not the only time United were vulnerable to a high ball, prompting Ferguson to bemoan their "worst defending of the season"), but Ronaldo twice finished coolly from close range to put the outcome beyond doubt. Or so it seemed, all the more so when Sam Sodje was dismissed for two harsh bookings during a 10-minute cameo.

In the event, Reading's neat, tactically astute approach was rewarded by Leroy Lita's stoppage-time shot. United resisted their push for a third goal - that would have tested the limits of plausibility - and Ferguson can freshen their ranks tonight with Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic. If he could just coax the sulky, subdued Rooney into matching Ronaldo's vitality, Mourinho's self-declared "drama" might get worse before it gets better.

Goals: Solskjaer (33) 1-0; Sonko (38) 1-1; Ronaldo (59) 2-1; Ronaldo (77) 3-1; Lita (90) 3-2.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Van der Sar; Brown, Ferdinand, Silvestre, Heinze; Ronaldo (Fletcher, 79), Carrick, O'Shea, Park (Giggs, h-t); Rooney (Richardson, 79), Solskjaer. Substitutes not used: Kuszczak (gk), Saha.

Reading (5-4-1): Hahnemann; Murty (Sodje, 59), Gunnarsson, Ingimarsson, Sonko, Shorey; Little (Seol, 66), Harper, Sidwell, Doyle (Hunt, 73); Lita. Substitutes not used: Federici (gk), Oster.

Referee: M Dean (The Wirral).

Booked: Manchester United Richardson; Reading Sodje, Gunnarsson.

Sent off: Sodje (69).

Man of the match: Ronaldo.

Attendance: 75,910.