United stays on top

Reading had given everything to repeat that goalless draw at Old Trafford, but persistence is as much an asset as quality for this Manchester United team and they would not be denied, writes Stuart Barnes.

Just when frustration looked to be settling over Manchester United — as it did when these sides met on the opening day of the season — Wayne Rooney came up with a touch of improvisation to keep his side on top of the Premier League.

Reading had given everything to repeat that goalless draw at Old Trafford, but persistence is as much an asset as quality for this United team and they would not be denied.

Even so, full credit must go to their opponents who went so close to drawing level in the last minute of normal time when Nicky Shorey sent James Harper through for a shot that went inches wide. Cruelly, Cristiano Ronaldo added a second in injury time after a breakaway as Reading threw everything forward.

No one could accuse Steve Coppell of shying away from a daunting confrontation with the team topping the table on goal difference at the start of the day. Reading went into the match with the Premier League’s worst defensive record — along with Derby they had conceded 47 goals in 22 fixtures.

But their manager started with three strikers in his line-up, Dave Kitson and Kevin Doyle being joined by the out-of-favour Leroy Lita, who was handed his first start since early November.

Sir Alex Ferguson restored Owen Hargreaves, recovered from a rib injury, to his midfield in place of the Brazilian Anderson and reinstated Wes Brown for John O’Shea at right-back. Inside the first minute Cristiano Ronaldo focussed on claiming his 17th League goal of the season, switching the ball to his left foot on the edge of the penalty box and firing a low shot inches wide of Marcus Hahnemann’s left-hand upright.

Doyle operated on the right side of midfield, but it was from wide on the left that his side manufactured the first moment of concern for United’s defence. Bobby Convey played in Lita, Edwin van der Sar blocked his approach and when the ball came loose Kitson was denied by Nemanja Vidic’s interception.

In an opening quarter of an hour brimming with attacking intentions, Ronaldo’s shot was close to the angle of bar and post after he ran at opposing defenders and Hahnemann saved one-handed from Carlos Tevez.

Careless play by Patrice Evra could have proved costly for United. He hesitated over what should have been a routine clearance, presenting James Harper with the opportunity to test Van der Sar at the near post.

Rooney had the ball in the net from an offside position after Tevez played the ball through. Then Hahnemann made a splendid fingertip save as a Hargreaves free-kick, awarded when Ronaldo was brought down, headed for the top corner of the net.

Quick thinking by Kitson almost caught out United after Van der Sar raced beyond the penalty area to clear. Reading’s leading scorer hoisted the ball back towards goal and with the goalkeeper struggling to regain his ground, Rio Ferdinand had to head clear.

To underline the way Reading had approached their task with commendable commitment and organisation, Harper, Stephen Hunt and the captain Graeme Murty combined to win a corner that Ivar Ingimarsson glanced across the face of goal with his head. Ferguson made a change for the second half, bringing on Ryan Giggs for Ji-Sung Park and it was a Giggs corner that caused problems as United opened in similar spirited fashion to earlier. Hahnemann was in difficulties as the kick came over and was grateful for Kalifa Cisse’s clearance near the line.

United were finding this a tough nut to crack. Both Giggs and Ronaldo retained possession just outside the box, sizing up openings that were not forthcoming. Ronaldo miskicked when Brown’s cross came over. Then Rooney tried from distance and was off target.

When Rooney delivered a better effort, Hahnemann turned it aside and Ingimarsson was in quickly as Giggs sought the loose ball. Hunt’s block on Rooney was equally important as United stepped up the pressure.

Reading eventually broke out and there was a chance when Kitson got the better of Vidic but Van der Sar was equal to an attempt to lob him. Soon after, Nani came on for Hargreaves. The breakthrough finally came after 77 minutes. There seemed little danger as Tevez angled the ball over, but Rooney reacted sharper than the covering defenders to score with a subtle volley across Hahnemann and inside the far post.

Coppell said later: “For 70 minutes we gave as good as we got and we can take a lot of satisfaction from our performance. A point would have been terrific for us. But we are all in the results business and over the course of the whole 90 minutes, you would expect United to create chances.”

© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2008