The problem with stopping Manchester United, or so the perceived wisdom goes, is that they have so many attacking options. Not so, said the Reading manager Steve Coppell. There are just two that make the difference: Wayne Rooney and Cristiano Ronaldo.
"Two frighten me, the rest don't frighten me. If they don't play, they are a different team," Coppell said. "They are the key individuals – they've lost four times when Rooney hasn't played, I believe. That is significant. Against Aston Villa the other week it's 0-0, Rooney comes on and the game's transformed. That combination, that understanding between the two of them, that is what you have got to stop. Don't get me wrong: without them they are still a handful but that is the difference." If United keep the pair fit, Coppell added, then they will retain the title.
The statistics back up his theory and not least because both scored to defeat Reading who, even Sir Alex Ferguson admitted, "were a little unlucky" to taste a fourth straight defeat. Indeed, the United players, Rooney and Rio Ferdinand in particular, queued up to claim it was the "hardest game of the season" for them. "Physically," Ferdinand said, "they worked us very hard".
There was also plenty of energy expended on the touchline, with Ferguson at his most animated, his most intimidatory, his most aggressive both in demeanour and tactics – at one point United played a 4-2-4 formation. "No, he hasn't mellowed," Coppell said. "When you are winning games it breeds drive. You don't give anything away, you don't lose your edge."
It was, Coppell said, a "compliment" to his team that they provoked such a response. However, the sight of Ferguson gesturing towards the home fans after United went ahead and then making another obscene sign at the Reading bench when the second goal was scored does not do him any favours and may provoke investigation from the Football Association. He also exploded at the fourth official, Dean Whitestone, when the board showed four minutes of added time, and the score still just 1-0, and involved himself in a running argument with the admittedly incendiary Reading coach Wally Downes. "I have know Fergie over the years and he intimidates more than enough people and you respond to intimidation by trying to respond. I was just listening," Coppell said.
As Ferguson and Downes had a reconciliatory glass of wine together afterwards, Coppell's admiration remained undimmed. Rooney and Ronaldo were not the only double act in town. The Reading owner, John Madejski, was flanked by the comediennes Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders in the directors' box while, more relevantly, there were the two Godfathers of English football: Ferguson and Fabio Capello. "I call him the Don of the managers," Coppell said of Ferguson while Capello, an interested observer who will have taken note of the powerful performance of Dave Kitson as well as the relentless aggression of Rooney, has also earned that sobriquet.
Supporters had the Reading chief scout, Brian McDermott, partly to thank for what turned out to be a compelling, open contest that enriched the League's reputation. It was he, Coppell revealed, who had persuaded him to go for a more attacking formation – and adopt a polar-opposite approach to the conservatism they employed in losing at home to Arsenal when ambition did not stretch beyond damage limitation.
"When I saw their line-up I knew they were going gung-ho," Ferguson said. And so they did. Chances racked up quickly and, despite Ronaldo having one of his poorer games, such is his brio that he still could have struck twice in a first half that also saw Owen Hargreaves force a fine finger-tip save from Marcus Hahnemman with a curling free-kick. But Reading came closest when Nemanja Vidic had to block superbly from Kitson with Edwin van der Sar stranded and the follow-up attempt to chip into an empty net was headed away by Rio Ferdinand.
The half-time introduction of Ryan Giggs triggered a transformation but even as United poured forward – Ronaldo spurned more opportunities – Kitson was again thwarted when, through on goal, he narrowly failed to lift the ball over Van der Sar. And then United scored. Carlos Tevez's wonderful flighted ball sailed over the otherwise imperious Kalifa Cissé, who had executed one brilliant goal-line clearance, for Rooney to steer into the net. Reading hit back and James Harper was unfortunate when his low shot steered narrowly wide before, as they attacked again, Rooney and Ronaldo broke away. The former's run opened up space for the latter, who calmly rolled in his 23rd goal of the season – already equalling his total in the last campaign. Afterwards United flew to Saudi Arabia for a testimonial match – earning them a cool £1m fee – and some warm-weather training at the behest of the royal family. They will also bask in the effect their two young princes had.
Murty rages at theft of Ronaldo shirt
The Reading captain Graeme Murty was furious after swapping shirts with Cristiano Ronaldo – only to have the garment stolen from the home dressing room while he was taking a shower.
"Someone's had away with it and when I find out it's going to be bloody," the right-back complained. "I don't know who but it's either a player, an apprentice or a member of staff. When I find out who it is they are going to get their legs broken.
"I've not played against Ronaldo before and I recognised, first hand, what a great player he is. He was the nearest player to me and I said, 'Can I have your shirt?' and he said, 'Yeah, I'm knackered'. But someone's half-inched it. I know who my lists of suspects is."
That list may include Murty's team-mate Stephen Hunt, who was also seen asking Ronaldo for his shirt, only to be told he'd promised it to Murty.
"It was a nice shirt for him to get and he's in there moaning away," Kevin Doyle said of Murty. "I'd check on eBay, I reckon, in a day or two."
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