Manchester Utd 1 Reading 1: Gunnarsson boosts fringe benefits

Icelandic international steps up to stun United as old Devil Coppell finds plenty in reserves
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The Independent Football

If only he had played his first team. Steve Coppell, that is. One suspects that, given the opportunity, the Reading manager would almost have conceded this tie before the game. Not out of fear, but priorities. His is the Premiership and, though he may not admit it, Europe.

Yet by the end even the normally taciturn Reading manager was exhorting his men to achieve the unthinkable. They didn't, quite, but on an evening when Sir Alex Ferguson's team appeared to have the Champions' League on their mind the visitors comfortably did enough to walk away with pride, and a deserved replay.

Coppell referred to his seven alterations from last week's defeat of Aston Villa as commitment to his fringe players. One could admire that stance, even if the uncommitted here, and watching on TV, may have viewed it as foolhardy in the extreme, if not sheer impudence, given the power of yesterday's opponents. Sending a second team out to defeat two Championship sides is one thing; it is quite another to do the same against the champions-elect.

His chairman, John Madejski, had weighed in, claiming that Reading have two first teams, both equal. Which suggests that for all his significant contribution to the Royals' ascent to these giddy heights, the art lover and benefactor should stick to appreciating his Degas rather than his Doyles.

In the event, Coppell was astute enough to deploy three of his key players, in Nicky Shorey, Steve Sidwell and Ivar Ingimarsson, in a 5-4-1 formation, with the strength of Leroy Lita, Glenn Little and Steve Hunt on the bench.

In the first half, it produced the desired effect: negating United's threat. With the exception of Michael Carrick's goal, that first period was played frequently in a cathedral silence. Rarely can the atmosphere have been so low-key. It was as if the mutual respect between the managers had infected their players.

United, who play Lille on Tuesday, were also far from full- strength. They were without the suspended Wayne Rooney, Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville, while Paul Scholes and Patrivce Evra started on the bench. It was 35 minutes before a weak effort by Saha finally brought goalkeeper Adam Federici into action. Before that, Ji-Sung Park twice turned the ball over the bar.

Reading forced two early corners and played the ball around precisely enough, but without looking as though they would penetrate the home rearguard. Any relief they felt at the absence of Rooney was tempered by their fear of the damage Cristiano Ronaldo could inflict. And it was the Portuguese who found Carrick, whose cross reached Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, but the Norwegian failed to capitalise. Saha summed up United's indifferent play when he drove wide from an angle.

At least Solskjaer had the ball in the net after a Reading clearance had ricocheted to him, but he was adjudged offside.

The Reading defender Ulises De La Cruz spurned the best chance of the half up until then when he was through, but managed only to find the side netting. He was made to rue that lost opportunity when, in added time, Ronaldo, who had been generally subdued, knocked the ball wide to Carrick, and the England midfielder placed a splendid low drive wide of Federici.

Early in the second half, Ronaldo, falling over, still contrived to divert the ball, with the aid of a deflection, just the wrong side of a post. Yet, there was still a lack of urgency from United.

Coppell demanded that his side apply more pressure, but as they did, Park broke and a deft pass released Ronaldo. With only Federici to beat, his shot drifted wide. A few minutes later he was off-target again. Encouraged by that survival, Reading equalised when a John Oster corner was firmly headed home by Brynjar Gunnarsson.

Perturbed by the thought of fixture congestion, Ferguson threw on the heavy brigade: Evra, Scholes and Henrik Larsson. But an error by Nemanja Vidic nearly let in Dave Kitson.

United had chances, such as when Ronaldo's superb pass gave Larsson a chance to force a fine save from Federici. At the death, Saha burst through but shot wide. It would have been unkind indeed on the visitors.