Reading once again showed their fighting spirit as they came within a goal of upsetting one of the biggest sides in world football. An entertaining and frenetic first half saw the sides combine for a Premier League record seven goals but Manchester United's quality shone through as the Royals were beaten for a third successive game.
Reading: Federici (5); Shorey (8), Mariappa (6), Morrison (6), Cummings (6); McAnuff (7), Leigertwood (6), Tabb (7), Robson-Kanu (8); Roberts (6), Le Fondre (6) Subs: Pogrebnyak (5), McCleary (6), Hunt (5)
One thing you can never question is the effort put in by a Brian McDermott Reading side. This isn't a team that loses games due to lazyness, players not bothering or bickering, it's a team that loses because it's just not quite got the quality right now. To be honest, the quality needed to beat Manchester United regularly at their own game would cost around five or six times what Anton Zingarevich just paid to buy our entire club, so on this occasion you can't fairly criticise Brian or the players for losing to a team like Manchester United.
However, that's different from saying that you can't fault the team for squandering the chance of an upset as that's exactly what Reading conspired to do on a bitterly cold evening at the Madejski Stadium.
Back in 2005/06 or even the run-ins during the last three seasons, when Reading took a lead you just knew we were going to win. This year, with six blown leads in the previous 13 games you came into the game feeling the opposite, and even after taking the lead twice yesterday, celebrations seemed a little bit stifled as you got the feeling that fans just knew we'd concede. You begin to wonder if maybe that feeling exists among the players as well....
Anyway, back to where it began and an unchanged Reading starting lineup made the best possible start against a strong United side by taking the lead through Hal Robson-Kanu. Jobi McAnuff was looking far more comfortable on the left and after his cross was only half cleared, there was Robson-Kanu to control and slam a half-volley right into the top corner and put us 1-0 up.
For five minutes we led but our hard work was undone when Rooney was found in acres of space on the left and with Cummings in no-mans land, was able to slot it through to Anderson who hit a first time shot high into Federici's nearpost. The Australian will be a little disappointed that he didn't get more on it but in fairness his defence shouldn't be allowing players to get shots like that in from 8 yards either.
Three minutes later and it was 2-1 to Sir Alex Ferguson's side, after Wayne Rooney calmly slotted home a penalty. While it initially looked a soft decision from the East Stand, replays clearly showed Jay Tabb barging Evans over and it was a sloppy one to give away with the United centre back seemingly going nowhere.
At this point I was braced for the worst but massive credit to Reading for not only drawing level but taking the lead again. Two Shorey corners did the damage, with the first finding Le Fondre and the second Sean Morrison.
This was just 23 minutes in and Reading went looking for a fourth, with McAnuff constantly getting past Rafael on one flank and Robson-Kanu getting the better of Evra and Carrick on the other. This was Reading at their best, they were taking the game to United and vindicating Brian's faith in them.
Sadly Reading once again couldn't hold onto a lead and with 29 minutes gone, Wayne Rooney slotted home from eight yards after a teasing low ball from Evra on the left.
Four minutes later and the game was settled by Robin Van Persie, who slipped away from a ball watching Morrison to get on the end of a lovely through ball from Rooney to beat Federici.
It could have been five before half time but for a good save from Federici and a behind the line clearance from Adrian Mariappa. If United hadn't got all three points there's no doubt we'd be hearing countless calls for goal line technology and this was a real let off for Reading. Luck may not be going our way at key times but we can't say we haven't had any of it this season.
United were forced into two changes before half time, with Anderson off with a hamstring injury and Rafael subbed in a tactical move. The Manchester United right back had just picked up a booking and was looking in all sorts of bother up against McAnuff, though the Brazilian looked particularly gutted to be taken off.
Into the second half and it was a much tighter game, with United seemingly happy to control possession and build patiently. Reading meanwhile were starting to look leggy and fast running running out of ideas. Smalling and Evra began to get a grip on Robson-Kanu and McAnuff while Phil Jones, on for Anderson, was an added physical presence alongside Darren Fletcher and Michael Carrick. Reading's only answer was repeated long balls up into space on the right, or Shorey playing it to Roberts who inevitably seemed to lose possession. Again you can't overly complain about your midfield being dominated by a midfield and defence containing the Scotland Captain, France Captain, a Northern Ireland international and four players with England caps but there was a disappointing lack of creativity or inventiveness through the middle, with Danny Guthrie just sat looking on the bench.
United could have killed the game off with just over 20 minutes left as Federici's decision to take a touch and then try and Cruyff turn his way out of sloppy backpass saw Van Persie nick the ball from the Aussie keeper's feet. Thankfully the Dutch striker somehow managed to miss from six yards but it's another dent to the already frail confidence of Federici and the ironic jeers from some of the Reading fans throughout the rest of the game couldn't have helped him.
Brian McDermott made all three subs in an attempt to win the game but none had any significant impact. McCleary struggled to get the ball, Pogrebnyak came on but with his only service long balls in the air you might as well have thrown on Alex Pearce. Noel Hunt was also introduced as a winger but hardly touched it. The only surprise was seeing Jobi McAnuff subbed at home, but to take off the three players who had looked capable of creating something out of nothing was disappointing, as was the non introduction of Danny Guthrie.
Reading had a couple of late corners to try and nab a draw but in the end United were comfortable winners on a night when Fergie's side demonstrated their extra touch of quality and composure in key moments. Brian McDermott and his players deserve a huge amount of credit for pushing United for long periods but will once again have that nagging what if feeling this morning.
Performance wise and as mentioned, Adam Federici's fragile confidence would have been further dented by the first goal and his gaffe that nearly allowed Van Persie to seal it in the second. I wouldn't call the first goal a huge error but a fully in form Federici would have backed himself to get a bit more on it. His kicking was also inconsistent and again it's a sign that there's just a lack of belief from the Aussie right now. While we've got other options in Andersen and Taylor, I think dropping him now would be almost fatal for his long term confidence, while you'd risk permanently ruining his relationship with the club and leaving Reading with a £35 grand a week goalkeeper sat on the bench. His poor form can't go on forever but he still deserves the chance to prove he's the same 'keeper that was so dominant last year.
Nicky Shorey put in another great performance and his set pieces were once again top draw. His composure is so welcome and needed in the defence and it's just a shame we can't clone him. Shaun Cummings was OK but will be disappointed to have not gotten tighter to Rooney for the first or maybe Evra for the third.
Adrian Mariappa really grew into the game, making some key interceptions and these two games in a week should have hopefully allowed him to get back to full fitness and match sharpness. Sean Morrison took his goal well but has some questions to answer about his tracking for both the first and fourth goals. His heading, passing and tackling all look very promising but his inexperience, particularly with regard to positioning has shown a few times since his introduction. Perhaps that's why Brian has been so keen to have the experienced Gorkss alongside him but again I have to raise a frustration that Alex Pearce has been frozen out. While their potential seems roughly on a par, Pearce is that much more the finished article and less likely to suffer the lapses that we've seen at times from Morro.
Sadly Pearce's contract situation has now relegated him behind Morrison in the pecking order and now that Brian has given Morrison a taste of regular first team football it's hard to see him being dropped for Pearce, even if last year's player of the year does sign a new deal.
Right now the reasons for Pearce signing that new deal are getting slimmer by the game. Does he really want to commit to a club who have dropped him for off-field reasons, have blooded a player with a similar skillset and are looking less and less likely to be in the Premier League next season? My heart would like to believe he'd stay because he loves the club and backs himself and the club to succeed but while I have no doubt he's cares about Reading, my head knows that if I were in his position I'd probably be looking to test the market given how the whole situation has played out this year.
Back to last night and Leigertwood had one of his better games for a while, while Jay Tabb was as industrious as ever. Tabby will be gutted to have given away a soft penalty and looked very leggy at the end but generally he played at a great tempo and gave it everything he had once again.
Jobi McAnuff and Hal Robson-Kanu were both excellent on the flanks. Robson-Kanu had perhaps his finest game in a Reading shirt and fully deserved of his goal. Jobi will be slightly gutted to have been subbed after a good display and I can only presume it was a decision based on his fitness rather than performance.
Up front and Roberts and Le Fondre were often isolated and well marshaled by the United defence. Roberts did his usual job of wriggling free from time to time or winning free-kicks but didn't get a proper sight of goal. Le Fondre took his goal very well and looked a handful but didn't really affect the play and was all too often left feeding off scraps.
Subs wise and as mentioned none of the three introduced made much of an impact.
A word for the referee Mark Halsey who had a bit of a mare. No complaints about the penalty but some of his decisions. particularly with regards to playing advantage were laughable. if a Reading player is fouled and the ball falls to Adam Le Fondre who's being shepherded out by two United players, where is the advantage?! Add in a ridiculous decision to give a goal kick instead of a blatant corner and a reluctance to get the book out and I'm sorry but that was far from a Premier performance.
As for United and well they were United. Any one of that 18 aside from maybe Rafael would walk in and take the mantle of best player at the club and even on a night when they fell behind twice, they refused to panic and just ground us down. They may not play the prettiest football in Europe but my word is it effective and I'd back them to claim back the title this season.
United's fans were also worthy of praise. Constant noise and a wide variety of songs made for some good banter and bar one idiot holding on to the ball in the closing minutes there wasn't any needless aggro or trouble that I saw. For all of the jokes about living round the corner you can't fault their away support in the slightest.
So where do we go from here?
Everyone at the club should take a lot of heart from this one, sure we lost but if we play at that intensity against Southampton or Sunderland then i'm sure we'll get a result. The challenge is trying to get that sort of performance every week, especially against teams that will be far more desperate than United.
We've now dropped 17 points from winning positions, points that would have seen us 6th in the table but those points are gone and all we can do now is draw hope from the fact that we've been in the position to win games in the first place. As mentioned in the intro, you can't fault the effort but there's a serious lack of composure and quality right now and the only place you're likely to see that come from before January is Danny Guthrie who's not exactly bought into the 'Reading mentality' so far, so his inclusion could end up creating a whole new set of problems.
Next up are two absolutely crucial games against Southampton and Sunderland. Defeat in both of those games would leave us at least six and up to eight or even nine points adrift of safety going into games with Arsenal and Manchester City. Four points has to be the target and two defeats could well spell doom for Brian McDermott, who without a win in either game would have a record of just 1 win from 16 and likely to have 1 win in 18 before Swansea visit on Boxing Day. Yesteday's game will have somewhat quietened the small group of fans calling for change but even the most loyal of fans will at least inwardly start asking questions if we're beaten again twice by relegation rivals.
Anyway, a good night of football at the Madejski that once again showed Reading can compete in the best league in the country. I'm not one for buying into the 'happy to just be here' mentality but even if winning in the Championship is more fun than losing in this division, it would still be a shame to see these nights come to an end so soon. Still, losing is never truly fun and I just hope Brian and the club can find a way to turn these entertaining draws and defeats into wins sooner rather than later.
So let us know what you think, all comments welcome below!