After a performance at the Bernabeu on Wednesday which saw Manchester United defend superbly and seek to expose Real Madrid’s defensive frailties on the counter-attack, the fifth round FA Cup tie against Reading proved an altogether different affair.
United still continue to battle on three fronts - Premier League, Champions League and FA Cup, and it was the latter in which the ‘second string’ were deployed. This season, when Ferguson has opted to field a ‘weaker’ side, there have been more than a few lacklustre performances on show, with the likes of Anderson and Nani in particular failing to grab the opportunities. However, against Reading, it was an entirely different story.
For the most part, the Royals did well, especially Adam Federici, to withstand the relentless attacking waves that came at them. The Australian ‘keeper was the unshakable rock against which these waves broke, and it was he alone that kept the scores level at half-time. But what was promising from a red point of view was the abundance of chances United created and this was without the likes of Van Persie, Rooney and Kagawa. Of late, Ferguson has dispensed with his traditional wingers, but both Valencia and Young started against Reading, with the latter having an excellent first half. Complacency won’t be an issue going into this Saturday's game with QPR with several fringe players putting in some impressive performances.
Anderson, so often a figure of Marmite proportions, was energetic and bustling in the centre of the park, chasing down players, carrying the ball, and spraying the ball round exquisitely. In a United midfield that has often been lacking mobility, Anderson provided his own personal remedy to the problem. The energy and commitment was more than apparent, but whether he has the composure for a tie such as that against Real Madrid is another question.
Similarly, Nani, who has found himself well down the pecking order after the arrivals of Van Persie and Kagawa caused a shift in United’s style of play, decided that he was in the mood to play against Reading. A goal and a great assist for Hernandez’s header capped off a night where the maligned Portuguese winger posed a great threat after coming off the bench for an injured Jones.
Danny Welbeck, who had a great night against Real Madrid at the Bernabeu, carried his good form into the FA Cup tie and his movement was a constant nuisance for the Reading defenders. He picked up and held onto the ball well, brought the likes of Young and Nani into play, and tracked back well. Despite being the club’s fourth choice striker, as well as possessing a questionable goal-scoring record, the young England striker has applied himself well of late with his enthusiasm to the cause, no matter who the opponents.
It must be refreshing for Ferguson to know that with the titanic second leg against Madrid to come at Old Trafford, as well as the task of maintaining their twelve-point lead at the top of the Premier League table, that he can call upon and rely on some of his rotation players to produce performances worthy of the Manchester United shirt. There looked to be a hunger about Nani, Anderson, Smalling and Buttner - a yearning to demonstrate not only their footballing ability and sharpness, but also their desire to play. Reading are hardly the force of Mourinho’s Madrid, but they are no slouches: they were simply outclassed by United on the night.
Robin van Persie’s introduction in the second-half prompted United to increase the tempo even further and Nani soon made the breakthrough. But what was noteworthy about the game was that United didn’t need to ‘rely’ on van Persie to haul them into the lead; his movement was fantastic sure, but Nani, Valencia and Hernandez combined for the goals, of which the former duo are having decidedly average seasons by their standards.
United face a QPR side battling relegation under the stewardship of Harry Redknapp this weekend and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the likes of Nani, Anderson, Valencia and Smalling get a run out: not only on the back of their good form, but because QPR could represent a fixture which Ferguson may consider deploying the aforementioned players as another opportunity to give them a chance to impress.
With the return fixture against Ronaldo and co. looming on the horizon in the next fortnight, and a more comfortable - if that can be said of any game in the top flight - run of games in the league, Ferguson’s ‘second string’ could be given more chances to prove their worth to the cause. In a season that has seen much speculation concerning the likes of Anderson and Nani, will this return to form signal a change in their fortunes, or has it simply come to late to stop the rumours circulating about their imminent exits this summer?
Either way, the bottom line remains: United weren’t full strength, even with Vidic dominating from the back, yet they played well and won. De Gea continues to perform admirably, Welbeck and Hernandez were handfuls, Vidic’s return heralded a powerhouse performance at the back, Young looked sharp, Smalling was composed, and all without the likes of Ferdinand, Evra, Carrick, van Persie and Rooney in the side. As pleasing as the result against Madrid was, this assured victory over Reading and subsequent progression into the quarter-finals of the oldest cup competition in the world was undoubtedly a great continuation of form.