1) Nani on a mission
Our Portuguese winger was set for a quiet night on the bench but after Phil Jones’ ankle injury in the first half, it was his name called by the manager despite Rio Ferdinand being sent to warm up when the injury first occurred.
Sir Alex realised that Reading were allowing United possession and were happy to have the play in front of them so he made the calculated risk of bringing on Nani and shifting Antonio Valencia to right-back. The two combined well even though it seemed Nani didn’t want to pass to the Ecuadorian. He had good reason though, he showed his capabilities almost instantly as he struck the post with a fierce volley and he didn’t stop there. The early opportunity lifted the crowd and Nani seemed to grow in confidence with each touch. He kept calling for the ball, made runs on and off it and wasn’t afraid to shoot from distance when there wasn’t a pass on. His endeavors were eventually rewarded when his wingman, Valencia, laid a ball low into the box and the determined substitute latched onto it and shot quickly to put United in front. Valencia may have actually been looking to find van Persie with the ball in but Nani’s quick thinking and quicker feet ensured it was his name read out by stadium emcee Alan Keegan. He wasn’t done yet either, as within two minutes he was on the right flank crossing beautifully for Chicharito to double the Reds’ advantage. He was clearly enjoying himself and persevered on the break when United were penned in by Reading late on.
His manager seems to agree that his performance deserved special mention: “His contribution was terrific,” Sir Alex said. “Just after coming on he had two great strikes, one hit the post and the other one was saved. In the second half he got us the opening goal and I had the feeling he would win the match for us.
“I think he deserved it. He’s a fantastic talent. You could see he was right on form when he came on. He’s a good addition. If he keeps that form, it makes my job more difficult.”
Nani has had a season disrupted by a mixture of poor form, injury and contract disputes and last night’s strike was only his third this season. With Fergie resorting to playing Danny Welbeck and Shinji Kagawa in wide positions of late, it is clear that he hasn’t been overly impressed with the actual winger’s performances. This showing will definitely put Nani at the top of the pecking order but he will have to maintain this level and go beyond it if he wants to remain at the club beyond this term.
2) Squad is stronger than Class of ’99
There has been a lot of treble talk in the last few days which led to questions to Fergie about the club’s most successful season. His response was that he believed he had a stronger squad now which surprisingly made big news. The Scot said: “We have a stronger squad now.”
“When we went to the [Champions League] final, [Roy] Keane and [Paul] Scholes were suspended but Henning Berg was the only injury,” Ferguson added.
“I still had to pull in a player [Jonathan Greening] who had only played once or twice in the first-team.
“He got a medal for being on the bench. That gives you an idea of the strength of the squad.”
Fergie’s right, we do have a stronger squad and last night’s game was further proof of that. Only Welbeck, David de Gea and Phil Jones retained their places in the starting XI and you’d expect a similar amount of changes for the trip to QPR at the weekend. The manager has gone on record many times that he was lucky with injuries in ’99 and the depth wasn’t what it is now. With basically two teams available to choose from, it has given Sir Alex a bit of a problem but as they’ll tell you, it’s a good problem to have.
3) Vidic uses his head
United captain Nemanja Vidic was missing from the squad in Madrid which led some to assume that his days were numbered. The boss revealed that he didn’t want to risk the Serb after a dominating showing against Everton just three days prior where he won the aerial duel with Victor Anichebe as well as the towering Marouane Fellaini and ensured his side kept a clean sheet to go 12 points clear at the top of the table. He was in similar mood against Reading and did well to organise an inexperienced defence that conisted of youngsters, a newbie and a winger. It wasn’t until the final 10 minutes that the Royals scored and with the added impotence of McAnuff’s goal, they predictably pushed for an equaliser. It didn’t come and that is mainly down to Vida’s heading ability. He headed everything that came at him; even Noel Hunt who ended up with a gash at the back of his head. Their match-up continued as Vidic’s heavily deflected header needed to be cleared off the line by Hunt as the skipper looked to take his heading skills to the opposing penalty area. With this in mind, Vidic will be useful in these games where physicality and aerial excellence are required. Who knows, he may have got to Ronaldo’s header.
4) We make it hard for ourselves
Dominate the match, finally break through, score another to settle the nerves and then concede to inflict worry on the fans. This tends to be how matches at home have gone this season. We were in a comfortable position but a moment’s loss of concentration and Reading were back in the game. It would have surprised none if they had levelled with their late flurry of balls into the United area. It is a problem. One that is often swept under the rug because we often get the job done in the end but that’s not enough. United have to make sure that their superiority is reflected in the scoreline at the end of a game. It’s not always possible, granted, but this trend will have to stop if the Reds are to win trophies this season.
5) Anderson-Cleverley combo
For all of Michael Carrick’s efforts this past 12 months where he’s been outstanding, Paul Scholes’ vision and accuracy, Darren Fletcher’s energy and Nick Powell’s promise, our best midfield combination is Anderson alongside Tom Cleverley. The two play some brilliant one-touch stuff whenever paired together and although neither are very defensive-minded, a game like yesterday’s suited them down to the ground. They were able to express themselves and link-up well with the forwards and wide players. The two would lend each other the ball and always have it returned to them in a better position. Now, don’t get me wrong, I still feel the pairing still has a lot to do in terms of defensive resposibility and positional play. But for a football purist, these two convey the best attacking midfield duo we have at our disposal. If both could be joined by a certain Shinji Kagawa in a 4-3-3, it would be something to behold.