Manchester Utd 3 Reading 2: Ronaldo makes an old man happy

United extend lead to six points as Royals show battling spirit to run Ferguson's side close
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The Independent Online

Whatever Sir Alex Ferguson wished for, you can be assured it was dwarfed by yesterday's gifts. Not only did Manchester United secure a win over Reading, but 200 miles away Chelsea were losing further ground in the slog for the Premiership title. It will be a very happy 65th birthday celebration today.

United go into 2007 and tomorrow's match at Newcastle United with a six-point lead which is a splendid present for any manager of any age. But when Ferguson celebrates becoming British football's most recent pensioner, there is a fair chance he will also toast the most important conversation he had in the old year - the one that changed Cristiano Ronaldo's mind and kept him at Old Trafford.

Five months ago, with the nation primed to heap abuse on him for his part in England's World Cup exit, the Portuguese winger was quoted as being intent on joining Real Madrid. Cue Ferguson at his most persuasive, and Ronaldo committed himself to Manchester United.

Ronaldo scored twice yesterday to bring his tally to 12 for the season and six in the last three games. He, more than anyone, is the reason why United have gained an advantage over the champions and why Ferguson had a smile the size of Old Trafford's South Stand last night.

"We said at the beginning of December that if we were top on New Year's Day we'd be delighted," Ferguson said, reflecting a maximum haul of nine points from the holiday fixtures. "It gives us an outstanding chance. But we're not looking behind us, we're looking ahead to some big matches, starting with Newcastle. That should be a terrific game."

Not that yesterday's was anything but compelling. Ferguson described his side's defending as the worst of the season but that was a little unjust on Reading, who were opponents who refused to be cannon fodder. Fresh from holding Chelsea on Tuesday, they drew level through Ibrahima Sonko after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had put United ahead and caused consternation when Leroy Lita dragged the score to 3-2 in stoppage time, even though Sam Sodje had been sent off for two bookable offences. Fortunately for an old man's blood pressure, they could not extract an equaliser.

Like their Boxing Day fixture against Wigan Athletic, United were better for half-time. Reading were the superior team in the first 20 minutes, Glen Little mis-hitting a shot that that trickled by a post and Lita flashing a drive just wide in the 11th minute.

Visitors to Old Trafford usually need to make these rare spells count and United duly gained control, increasing the pressure until Steve Coppell's team cracked. Ronaldo and Solskjaer were denied by Hahnemann in the 28th minute and Wayne Rooney had a clear header four minutes later which ought to have sounded a warning. Instead, Solskjaer was given the freedom to meet Ronaldo's cross and head it powerfully into the top corner.

Reading finished? Far from it. Nicky Shorey's free-kick four minutes later had Edwin van der Sar caught in a fog of uncertainty and as the United keeper came for the ball Sonko got a touch on it to head into an empty net.

Ronaldo hit the bar with a header but it was the introduction of Ryan Giggs for the second half that provided the catalyst for the victory. Suddenly United's movement scattered Reading's man-for-man marking and the effect was almost as immediate as it had been on Tuesday, when Ronaldo scored with his first touch against Wigan. Giggs and Ronaldo exchanged passes on the right and when the latter crossed, Solskjaer was lurking at the near post and his header was only just clawed away.

The momentum was building and it reached spectacular fruition in the 58th minute. Giggs passed into the area and Rooney turned possibility into probability with a flick of his heel. Solskjaer beat Sonko and curled the ball round Hahnemann only for it to hit the post. It is hard to keep Ronaldo out of the script in recent weeks, though, and he was first to the rebound, tapping the ball in from two yards.

Sodje's dismissal for a late challenge on Gabriel Heinze and holding back Rooney swung the match further towards United and the third goal was almost as predictable as the identity of the scorer. Giggs delivered a cross from the right and Ronaldo - "he's the one player every Premiership manager would love to have," Coppell said - stole in at the far post.

It seemed to be all over but in stoppage time Lita made it a fraught final seconds when he profited on woeful hesitation in the United defence to make the score 3-2. Old Trafford tensed, Ferguson reached for an ageing but fully serviceable hairdryer, only for the final whistle to go. Happy birthday, Sir Alex.