Rio Ferdinand sets up Wayne Rooney for Manchester United’s winner against Reading
Manchester United beat Reading 1-0 with a goal from Wayne Rooney to send the league leaders fifteen points clear at the top, following Manchester City’s 2-0 defeat away at Everton. The game itself was unspectacular, with Sir Alex Ferguson’s squad rotation working as we enter the international break. Reading have only lost out to United by a single goal margin, and yesterday was no different. United did just about enough to win the game, although Reading fans will no doubt feel aggrieved at not winning a penalty when Mariappa was pushed by Vidic in the second half. Here we discuss the talking points of the game and welcome comments from both sets of fans.
Squad rotation works in build up to squeaky bum time
It didn’t make for a pretty game but Fergie made eight changes from the Chelsea FA Cup tie, choosing to rest some key players who looked jaded. Rafael, Evra, Carrick and Cleverley were the notable absentees and will all be grateful for the time off. Both fullbacks in particular have very little competition for their places and have played well over 3000 minutes this season.
Such changes could have been predicted though. Last Monday, Anderson, Buttner and Smalling all played for the U21s to get some match fitness – it was a sign that they’d be involved against Reading. Even so, it’s fair to say they still lacked some sharpness and the way the team had simply been thrown together made for a lack of cohesion. Anderson and Giggs never quite seem comfortable together or were able to properly protect the defence. The absence of Rafael and Evra really hit home how important they are, particularly going forwards as neither Smalling nor Buttner were able to provide much of a threat.
Unquestionably it was the right decision to make changes and had we not been winning there was enough ammunition on the bench to ensure we would win. If anything though, it’s raised questions about some of the squad players who came in and why they weren’t able to play as well as they should have done against poor opposition.
The end is nigh for Anderson
At the end of the 2007/08 season, Anderson was firmly a fan favourite. Other than smashing his penalty under the rainfall of the Moscow night sky, he put in extremely impressive and dominant appearances away at Liverpool and at Arsenal – to help United to a double. The potential was there for all to see. A player from the pass and move school, he would takes players away with his acceleration and prove a valuable asset in breaking from midfield to support the attack. The £20 million United had spent on the Brazilian seems like money well spent considering he had just turned 20 by the end of 2008. Since that debut season there have been patches and even on occasions prolonged spells where he would look like a player, but they have been anywhere near as frequent as they should be. Injuries, fitness and lack of professionalism (he refused a breathlyser test after crashing his car at 7am after attending a nightclub) have halted his progress, but has the end finally come for Anderson?
His ‘sh*tting on Fabregas’ song was and still is brilliant and he always plays with a smile on his face but do you think his time is now up at Old Trafford? He was excellent in the 5-4 defeat to Chelsea in the League Cup earlier in the season, but it was the same old story – he looked knackered and had to be withdrawn, right before Chelsea snatched an equaliser and eventually won the game. For a good few years we wrote about how each new season could be big for him if he stayed fit – there’s only so many times you’ll play a broken record though.
Against Reading, he missed the 2-1 defeat to Madrid and 2-2 draw with Chelsea, it was his first start since Norwich at home. We’re not ones to jump on bandwagons, but he does appear to be putting on a bit of weight and was rarely an attacking threat. Many will cite his 96% passing range as a positive from the game, but most of those were sideways or indeed back to Rio Ferdinand who wasn’t under any pressure:
Anderson’s passing stats against Reading supplied by FourFourTwo Statzone
Giggs, Ferdinand and Vidic on song
In a game of few stand-out performers, it was three of United’s experienced pros that were most praiseworthy. As already noted, Giggs didn’t really work with Anderson too well but once again he was good in possession. Reading seemed to afford United plenty of space and Giggs was the one driving forward into it, trying to stretch the game into the opposition half. Attacking-wise, he was the best of a bad bunch and continues to show that he looks after his body ridiculously well. That he is purposely treated so that he is fresh for this time of the year is really starting to pay off.
If there was one big positive to take out of the game it was probably the centre backs. They’ve played a big part in the five game clean sheet run that the team are enjoying in the league right now. Rio looked as assured as ever and is richly deserving of his England recall even if it’s not necessarily the ideal scenario for United. He also decided to get involved in affairs at the other end of the pitch, setting up Rooney for his goal with a mazy run. As for Vidic, he’s starting to look like his old self again – the strength, confidence, leadership and general aura have returned. It’s been a really good couple of months for him and in these kind of games against teams that have something to fight for, that he can counter the long balls and powerful strikers is proving a huge asset.
Robin van Persie goal drought
Robin van Persie has been Manchester United’s best player this season, by a mile. He is the main reason United are indeed 15 points clear at the top. His goals against Southampton, Manchester City, Arsenal, Liverpool – have won the three points for United. But, it has to be noted, the Dutchman hasn’t hit the back of the net since he scored the second in the 2-0 win over Everton back in early February. Anybody who has watched football for years will know that players go through patches where its just not happening for them. A few months ago, that overhead kick with his right kick would have flown in, sadly it wasn’t the case yesterday.
The Dutchman has featured in the most games for United all season, and against Reading it was his 38th time to take the field in a red shirt. To be the focal point of the attack and to play in so many games can take its toll and he may be fatigued as we enter the business end of the season. Holland have two key games coming up in Group D of their World Cup qualifiers and van Persie is expected to play in both. On Saturday he lines up against Estonia and then face Romania the following Tuesday. With Manchester United’s remaining fixture list looking congested with the Easter Monday replay against Chelsea, Ferguson may need to assess van Persie’s fitness ahead of the next game against Sunderland.
Still, an unbelievable footballer and would be our choice for footballer of the year.
15 point and 9 games to go
Having eked out another three points at home to Reading, and with City convincingly beaten at Goodison earlier on Saturday, United ended the weekend with a commanding 15 point lead at the top of the Premier League. Better still, the remaining fixtures have dwindled into single figures, and only nine games separate us from the end of the season. Having dropped only thirteen points in the first twenty-nine games – an astonishing rate of efficiency from this year’s crop – it would take a collapse of Soviet proportions to let City back into it at this point. Still, Sir Alex has promised no complacency whatsoever from the lads, and we should expect continued focus in the final run of games, which include City and Chelsea at home, as well as tough-looking trips to Arsenal and Stoke. Sir Alex will be delighted with such a massive lead at this point – as will the fans – and will want to end the season with as big a margin of victory as possible, to really drive home the message to domestic rivals. That message? – you don’t f**k with Manchester United.
It wasn’t one of United’s better performances, and in fact it was one of the side’s poorest showings this season. It was an opportunity for important players to rest, and for some of the fringe players to make their mark; sadly, none did, and it was the veterans who kept the team ticking over on Saturday. Still, the Reds emerged with an almost unassailable lead at the top of the table, and will go into the international break full of confidence for the missions that lie ahead in the league and FA Cup. The winning machine rolls on.