Second Half Swagger Keeps United Top
It was never going to be easy. Last season Reading twice managed to hold us a to a 1-1 draw and the 3-2 wins (home in the league, away in the FA Cup) had an element of luck about them. And don't forget our stinking opening day when we had about 3,512,723 chances but failed to put the ball past Hahnemann.
Therefore, I wasn't entirely surprised that when Bennett blew his whistle at half-time the game was still goalless. What did surprise me, though, was that we created very little unlike in those aforementioned games. Ronaldo, predictably, had the first chance after setting himself up for a shot that eluded the right post somehow. Tevez had a decent shot parried by the American keeper and Rooney scored at the end of a fine move but the goal was correctly ruled out for offside.
Hargreaves could have scored with a great freekick after Ronaldo was brought down on the edge of the box but the midfielder's shot was fantastically tipped round the post by Hahnemann. And that was it, really, for the first half.
Not that Reading were mightily creative. They managed to keep us at bay and played with real fire and enthusiasm but showed little quality. Convey's and Hunt's crosses caused occasionally mayhem in the box but usually they were reduced to blocked shots. Evra and Brown played really well while Rio and Vidic were as solid as ever so it was difficult to imagine that United could concede here, despite some shaky moments from Edwin. And we missed Anderson who wasn't even on the bench.
As it is, the game sprang to life after the break. I think it was down to a single thing: the introduction of Ryan Giggs, replacing the ineffective Ji-sun Park who has a long way to go before recapturing his form of 2006. Our previously disjointed attack looked a lot more United (forgive me for this dreadful pun) and it was the Welshman's first couple of corners that caused real trouble inside the box and eventually the bouncing ball had to cleared of the line by Cisse with Hahnemann in no man's land.
United were playing with flair and purpose now and it looked like inevitable that we would score as Reading who did really well on the first half was firmly put on the back foot. Ronaldo fired over the bar after Rio set him up, Rooney's effort was parried by Hahnemann and on the follow-up Giggs' effort was blocked by Murty (if I remember correctly which is never certain), Giggs fired weakly into Hahnemann's hands after some brilliant work from Ronaldo on the right, Rooney's effort was saved by Hahnemann and another was blocked... you get the point.
At times Reading were all over the place defensively but they survived the United onslaught and around the 70th minute it all got quiet and settled. I feared that we simply ran out of steam and Fergie looked to be thinking along the same lines and tried to refresh the troops by sending in Nani to replace Owen Hargreaves.
The Portuguese did not have an immediate impact but fortunately it wasn't necessary as United finally found a way through. It was so typical: after squandering easy chances, Rooney finished off beautifully a frankly difficult one. Tevez's brilliant chip found him between two defenders and with one touch, using the outside of his right foot, he flicked the ball into the far corner past Hahnemann.
The relief was immense for United fans and players alike and we really should have finished them off easily: flowing counterattacks ended with Carrick tucking the ball wide from a great chance then Rooney setting up Ronaldo who could not squeeze it past Hahnemann inside the box... And we were almost made to pay for it as Shorey did brilliantly to beat Rooney at the touchline and sent forward a brilliant long ball. Fletcher lost Harper who nipped in between Rio and Vidic but fired wide with Van der Sar looking well beaten.
However, it would have been hugely unjust had Reading equalised as we had had sufficient chances to win a dozen games. With the Reds giving away possession cheaply, however, we were made to work hard and it was heart in the mouth stuff for the fans as the Royals came pouring forwards at every opportunity and somewhat strangely, started to play a neat passing game for the first time during the match.
However, United were not to be denied. As another Reading attack broke down, Ronaldo got the ball in his own half. He raced forward with nobody bothering to track him. Poor Shorey was left alone to deal with Rooney and Ronaldo who were running at him and as Rooney pulled him off from Ronaldo with his movement you had the sense that the Portuguese was going to make up for his previous frustrating opportunities. He made no mistake this time, firing past Hahnemann into the far corner of the net.
I think the second half performance was as good as it gets: we created tons of chances away from home and despite some poor finishing - there was a period when all of our attacks ended with a goalscoring chance yet Reading miraculously emerged unscathed - we were well worth the three points. It's a shame Chelsea eventually won - as I heard, they were made to work for the points even harder than ourselves - but we're still top of the table and nothing else matters right now.
Next up is Spurs in the FA Cup then Pompey in the league, both at Old Trafford - can't wait, these should be cracking games.