After an emotionally draining fortnight full of highs and lows, for everyone from the manager to Rio Ferdinand’s PR team, Manchester United return to their relentless pursuit of the 20th league title, so cruelly snatched away from them in the dying moments of the 2011/12 season.
Make no mistake about it, despite semi-hopeful desires of a 1999-esque season repeating itself this year, Manchester United’s main priority this year was always going to be the Premier League. As Chelsea proved last year in the Champions League and Bradford on their heroic run to the League Cup Final, luck plays a significant role in cup competitions demonstrating that it is not always the best team that wins.
The league however, has and always will be a true indicator of the measure of a team, a notion that some managers (*cough* Arsène Wenger) perhaps hold on to too tightly as a belief.
On paper, all the indicators point towards a comfortable home win for the Red Devils. United are currently top of the league by twelve points, playing some good fluid football offensively and have tightened up defensively in the last few weeks, no doubt aided by the return of inspirational captain Nemanja Vidić, helping to steady the ship.
Morale has been generally high, despite being knocked off course a little by the narrow Champions League exit and a shoddy second-half display against Chelsea. After a week’s rest, Sir Alex Ferguson’s men should be rejuvenated to kick on again against a struggling Reading side, who are on an unenviable run of five losses on the bounce.
The media and public have rightfully reacted to the sacking of Brian McDermott, with some incredulity. Yes, their results in recent times haven’t been great, but McDermott was doing a great job considering the resources available to him. Reading have arguably the side with the least quality in the division and most neutrals agree that they probably over-achieved last year, with a stunning run in the latter half of the season, a lot of the credit of which must go to the manager.
The sacking of him with only nine games left to salvage themselves from the relegation abyss seems ludicrous. Is there a manager available, who would be a significant improvement on McDermott, capable of saving them from their inevitable demise? Even the likes of Mourinho, Ancelotti, Guardiola would struggle to win games in the Premier League with a central midfield consisting of Mikele Leigertwood and Jay Tabb.
Reading’s position in the league looks the most precarious out of all the other relegation candidates. QPR have a decent squad and a maverick manager in ‘Arry who can, despite all of the media pandering, breathe life into seemingly hopeless situations.
Wigan and Roberto Martínez have experience of escaping the drop and are tactically flexible. Southampton and Villa have more resources then Reading and good brave managers. All in all, Reading’s future look’s bleak and with matches against United, Arsenal, Liverpool and City to come; it doesn’t look too promising for the Royals.
In spite of all this, playing with barely any expectation, may allow Reading to play with vibrancy and freedom, as they have little to lose at Old Trafford. After all, they put three past United earlier in the season and scored a late goal in the FA Cup fixture, to get the Old Trafford faithful temporarily jittery.
Indeed, the current champions Manchester City only just managed to beat Reading by the single goal in the last minute. Despite lacking in quality, Reading possess doggedness and will fight for everything, willing to press United relentlessly with the likes of Adam Le Fondre and Danny Guthrie willing to do the dirty work.
The biggest problem for Manchester United will be their complacency. It was present on Sunday when the team switched off collectively, with sloppy passing and concentration allowing Chelsea to drag themselves back into the game. One of the main culprits for this was Antonio Valencia, who has been playing well below par for the last few weeks and some may argue months.
He has been much maligned by United fans this season, the same ones who had voted him as the fans’ player of the season only last year. His lack of confidence, seemingly unable to beat his man and using the safe option, has been frustrating. However, against Reading, assuming he starts, he will be facing an ageing left-back in either Nicky Shorey or Ian Harte, who in theory he should be able to get the better of.
Ferguson is also likely to freshen things up at the back. Vidić who was rested for the Chelsea game, will most likely return to replace Ferdinand and partner Jonny Evans at the back and will relish the physical threat of Pogrebnyak and/or Roberts. Chris Smalling may come in to replace Rafael who has played a lot of football recently.
In midfield, Anderson – who scored a cracking goal against Reading earlier on this season – is likely to get a start alongside the ever-reliable Carrick. Ashley Young will be another one likely to start, being relatively fresh after a few games on the sidelines.
Up front, United have a wealth of choice that any club would be proud of having. Shinji Kagawa will be chomping at the bit to play again after his impressive hat-trick against Norwich and Javier Hernández likewise after his clever headed finish against Chelsea.
However, with the international break looming and the potential to extend the lead at the top should City slip at Goodison Park, Ferguson is likely to opt for the big two – Rooney and van Persie – and go for the jugular. Rooney will be willing to prove his doubters wrong once again with an improved performance and RVP’s relative goal drought (one in seven) is likely to be resolved tomorrow.
Some have joked that van Persie’s recent goal drought is due to the fact he is used to finishing his season in March, as Arsenal have effectively done in their past eight consecutive seasons. However, all he has to do is look at the number at the back of his shirt to remind him what he should be aiming to achieve: title 20 delivered by United's number 20.
Follow Amman on Twitter: @armarni47