Nani edges Manchester United past Reading and closer to the treble dream
Manchester United 2 Reading 1
There were none of the double backflips with twist which Nani made his trademark when his Manchester United career looked like a cloudless sky.
Just two thumbs, jerked over his shoudlers at the name and number on his back, after he had proved the crucial difference and broken the deadlock, reminding us that he was the one who used to have jet-heels at Old Trafford.
If his man-of-the-match performance, undertaken in barely 45 minutes of football after arriving from the bench, preserves his United career into a sixth season then it will be one of football's more surprising turnarounds, for a player whose limited game-time has seen him reject a new contract, which has limited his game-time. Stranger things have happened.
Antonia Valencia's struggle to reach the heights of last year, when he was player of the season, may help the cause of the Portuguese, who is a game-changer in a way Ashley Young has never been at Old Trafford. Some don't care for his attitude. But a little bit of attitude goes a long way on a night like this.
For now, the only issue of consequence to his manager is an FA Cup quarter-final place, which allows United every right to think of three trophies. This was another fairly undistinguished performance against a determined and occasionally threatening Reading side, which required the services of substitute Robin van Persie to knit things together, the presence of Nemanja Vidic to fend off a physical frontline and the figure of Anderson to whip up the Stretford End from a slough of despondency just before two goals in three second-half minutes shaped the course of the night. But the numbers don't lie. It has been 16 games now since United last lost, in the Champions League dead rubber at home to FC Cluj. The defence has lost the "cartoon cavalcade" quality which Ferguson described back them. Essentially, United don't lose.
Though it has been nine years since the FA Cup last graced their trophy cabinet, an absence starting to haunt some of the players, the manager did not seem unduly concerned. They started in a way that suggested they could afford to dispense with Wayne Rooney and Van Persie. Javier Hernandez drew two defenders with a deft feint, to force a good block from Adrian Mariappa, who repeated the job when Danny Welbeck seized upon the rebound. The Australian goalkeeper Adam Federici had his work cut out, too, from the strong-handed save, down on one knee, from Danny Welbeck, to the double stop, sharp from Tom Cleverley's 30-yard effort and Young's rapid follow-up.
But it quickly became apparent that Brian McDermott's side were not here to make up the fixture. The power and trajectory of Nicky Shorey's dead-ball delivery into the area looked capable of testing a known United vulnerability and made it a good night to have Vidic in the starting line-up. The Serbian left Noel Hunt with a deep cut which required stapling after nutting him in the back of his head in the first half. Hunt returned with an old-school blank jersey and continued to play with old-school endeavour. Phil Jones did not get close to Jobi McAnuff, who persistently troubled him down the Reading left. Jones' own poor control contributed to the eye-watering challenge from McAnuff which saw him limp off in the first half, a disappointing night brought to a premature end, three minutes before the interval.
It was the reshuffle prompted by Jones' departure, with Valencia shuffling to right-back behind the oncoming Nani, which finally delivered some tempo and zest to a first half display which had become sluggish. The Portuguese looks for all the world to be on his way out of Old Trafford, out of contract in 12 months and with Wilfried Zaha heading north from Crystal Palace this summer, but within five minutes he had clattered the post and forced Federici to parry away, two-handed.
Though United's momentum grew ominous after the interval, the unbridled delight at the sight of Van Persie arriving just beyond the hour told the real story of anxiety. With seven men behind the ball as United pressed, Nani was the one individual who looked capable of breaking Reading's chain, digging out a dipping shot from 25 yards which flew narrowly wide and then picking up and dispatching a Valencia ball from 12 yards which took the slightest deflection as it arrowed into the bottom corner.
Reading almost struck back immediately, when Hunt climbed to knock a header into the path of Adam le Fondre, who swivelled to batter a left-footed shot which David de Gea did well to claw out. But there was to be no stopping the man wearing 17, who measured an excellent near post cross which allowed Hernandez to offer a reminder of his own best qualities of movement as he navigated it in with his head.
There was still life in Reading, with McAnuff in position to sweep home a goal which reignited the tension after Chris Smalling had played the visitors onside and Vidic had struggled to clear. Nani could only mange the side-netting after seizing on the rebound when Van Persie, on the halfway line, had sent Hernandez spinning away to shoot. But he was forgiven. Nani rediscovered the Old Trafford love in abundance last night and though his manager was offering no immediate reassurances he had made his point. No-one needs reminding who he is today.
FA Cup sixth round draw details
Oldham/Everton v Wigan
Manchester City v Barnsley
Man Utd v Middlesbrough/Chelsea
Millwall v Blackburn
n Ties to take place 9/10 March
Manchester Utd: DE GEA, JONES, SMALLING, VIDIC, BUTTNER, ANDERSON, VALENCIA, CLEVERLEY, YOUNG, HERNANDEZ, WELBECK
Reading: FEDERICI, SHOREY, MARIAPPA, MORRISON, KELLY, McANUFF, LEIGERTWOOD, KARACAN, McCLEARY, HUNT, LE FONDRE
Scorers: Manchester United: Nani 69, Hernandez 72. Reading: McAnuff 81
Subs: Man Utd Nani (Jones, 41), van Persie (Young, 63), Carrick (Anderson, 83). Reading Guthrie (Leigertwood, 64), Robson-Kanu, (McCleary, 70). Booked: Reading Hunt. Man of the Match Nani. Match rating 6/10.
Possession: Man Utd 61%. Reading 39%. Attempts on target: Man Utd 9. Reading 3. Referee A Marriner (West Midlands).
Belfast Telegraph Digital