Manchester City took over at the head of the Premier League, on goal difference from Manchester United, but it was only a temporary loan from their bitter rivals. United, after an astonishing seven-goal first half against Reading at Madejski Stadium last night, clung on to victory and went back to the top.
After the pyrotechnics of the opening 45 minutes - in which both defences were little short of a shambles, though it made for fascinating viewing - United showed some semblance of sanity after the break. With the City-United derby coming up next Sunday, it is that resilience which they will need to exhibit at the Etihad Stadium, not the punch-drunk antics of earlier.
Sir Alex Ferguson, the United manager, has perhaps seen everything in his 26 years at the United helm but even he admitted to a tinge of amazement at the initial exchanges. "I thought it would end up being a record score for the Premier League," he said. "It was really bad defending, probably our worst of the season. We need to sort that out.
"If we kept making mistakes at the back, then we were going to have to be rescued by the forwards. And we were. It was a real rescue job, a real cliff-hanger. The way we were defending, I thought it would be a miracle if we won. In the end, though, we showed a great response and really battled back."
At times, the first half beggared belief as the teams traded goals in breathaking fashion, the magnificent seven equalling the Premier League scoring record for the first period. For the opening nine minutes, not much happened ... then, in an inexplicable explosion of slack defending and precision finishing, the match went mad.
Reading went ahead when Hal Robson-Kanu crashed in a left-footed shot after a poor clearance from Jonny Evans. It was the 14th game, out of 22, in which United had gone behind this season. Four minutes later, United were level when Anderson hammered home at the near post via the no doubt stinging fingertips of Adam Federici, the Reading goalkeeper.
Three minutes on, United were ahead. Jay Tabb rashly bundled over Evans in the area and Wayne Rooney, initially operating on the right wing, slotted in his fourth goal of the season from the spot. Four more minutes and it was 2-2, Adam Le Fondre nodding in Nicky Shorey's corner.
United's defensive shortcomings were exposed again soon after, when Sean Morrison thundered in another header from another Shorey corner. Only 23 minutes had passed; it was the earliest United had conceded three goals in the Premier League. Yet the mayhem had not finished.
Reading's rearguard was similarly shell-shocked, with United drawing level when Patrice Evra crossed from the left and Rooney was left with time and space to guide in the sixth goal. Ferguson had had enough of the carnage and replaced Rafael with Chris Smalling at right back. As a disgruntled Rafael left the pitch, he shunned the use of a coat, which on a bitterly cold night was rather foolish.
"What reaction?" Ferguson said, when asked about Rafael's response. "It was nothing. Rafael has had a very good season and he was just disappointed at having to come off. Bringing on Chris made a big difference, especially with his height and our defending at set-pieces.
Would, perhaps, the teams take a breather? No way, there was still time for one more. And United should have had two. Rooney set up Robin van Persie to tuck in his 13th goal of the season and the Dutchman was denied a second when, after Federici had saved superbly from Smalling, Adrian Mariappa appeared to block van Persie's follow-up attempt on the goalline. Yet television replays showed that it had crossed the line.
"It was end-to-end a bit," Rooney obeserved. "A bit like a basketball match. I should think that for our watching coaches and fans it was agonising and we just had to dig in. We kept showing great character to get back in it and were much more solid in the second half. we're three points clear now and that's the most important thing."
Not since the Blackburn Rovers-Leeds United and Derby County-Bradford City goalfests in 1997 had the Premier League witnessed such first-half drama. It couldn't continue after the break - surely? - and it didn't. United seemed to settle for what they had got and although Reading controlled much of the play, they lacked their early penetration.
United could have made it safe, when Federici fumbled Mariappa's backpass, but van Persie missed the gaping net as Federici scrambled on all fours. "I don't really know what to say about that first half," Brian McDermott, the Reading manager, said. "It was just amazing.
"Some of our football was terrific, the way we passed the ball, and I thought that we might go on and win. I'm standing in the technical area next to Sir Alex, we're playing Manchester United and we're leading them 3-2. That shows how far we've come over the past few years."
Reading took many plaudits in defeat but it was the "Comeback Kings" who had done it again, recovering from a deficit to win for the tenth time in 22 matches in all competitions this season. With resilience like that, regaining their title from City should prove easily within their compass. Sunday should provide a big pointer.
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