Manchester United vs. Reading: 6 Things We Learned
Indeed, some of the things we learned were not conducive to United walking away with the Premier League title.
Nevertheless, they say that great teams win ugly, and that is what United did. Reading were workmanlike, but frankly on this form they are already "dead and buried" in the Premier League. So sacking January's Manager of the Month, Brian McDermott, seems to have been pointless.
And that's how the "Royals" left Old Trafford. But luckily for United, Manchester City left Goodison Park in the same condition, so their title challenge seems to be equally doomed.
But it's not all over "till the fat lady sings..."
United Will Still Sruggle to Nail the Title If They Play Like This
Following several of his players apparently being "knackered" (according to Sir Alex Ferguson's programme notes and, it seems, every interview he's given in the last week), he decided to ring the changes.
It is a mark of his dedication that he sat in sub-zero temperatures to watch United's Under 21s on Monday night when he could have been at home watching MUTV. It also seems likely that he asked coach Warren Joyce to include Chris Smalling, Alexander Buttner, Anderson and Nick Powell.
He must have liked what he saw, because the first three played on Saturday night and Powell was on the bench.
On Monday Anderson was pretty ineffectual in the first half. He improved and made the roster for the match against Reading. He was better than he has been lately, but he still can't last 90 minutes.
Together with his colleagues they put in a largely unimpressive performance. Were the players "knackered" or simply lacking in inspiration? They certainly weren't convincing.
They must have watched City fail to turn up against Everton a few hours earlier, offering the chance for United to snatch a 15-point lead, which would surely prove unassailable.
Luckily it was manager-less Reading they were playing, not soon-to-be-managerless Chelsea, or possibly-soon-to-be-managerless City. If they had played like this against their two major rivals, they would have been also-rans.
United have just nine games left. Or, more to the point, City do, in which to win all nine and hope that their runaway rivals lose at least five.
It's not going to happen. Or it shouldn't. But while the upcoming fixtures against Chelsea, Arsenal and City probably look the most dangerous, relegation fighters Aston Villa, Stoke and Sunderland could still provide as stern a test.
However, the likeliest scenario is that United will be home and dry before the end of the season and able to give more chances to the likes of Powell and Buttner.
Alexander Buttner Is Ready to Step Up
And probably so is Fabio da Silva, judging by his recent performances for QPR.
Buttner doesn't yet quite have the attacking edge that Patrice Evra has, despite having graduated from wing forward to wing back before he came to United. However, he is a more than competent footballer and he is better at tackling.
Some people don't seem to get Ashley Young, but they probably overlook the fact that his defensive skills are often needed when he is double-ganged with Evra down the left flank.
There is far less need with Buttner. He is fearless, heads the ball well, has good pace, is two-footed and can harry and tackle.
So that means less of a defensive worry down United's left if Nani or Zaha are playing in the future.
Buttner was one of the Under 21s' most effective players, being responsible for generating most of United's attacks against Wolves, despite patrolling the entire left flank on his own.
Today he was hardly under pressure and was able to display his attacking heritage.
That's one less signing United will need to make in the summer; especially with Fabio coming back from loan.
Nemanja Vidic Is Still World Class
Club captain Nemanja Vidic was outstanding against Real Madrid and did not deserve to be on the losing side.
Against Reading he was simply world class and, by a country mile, Man of the Match.
His heading was utterly fearless and he had Noel Hunt in his pocket for much of the match. But he knows when to do the simple thing, like shuffling the ball out for a throw to buy time for United to reorganise. Some of his colleagues would do well to note that rather than try the clever thing.
He didn't have much chance to head the goalkeeper's fists, but he is the main reason why United are once again keeping clean sheets.
The Red Devils have now conceded only three goals in their last 10 Premier League matches; Vidic has played in nine of those. Statistics don't lie.
He seems back to his fittest best, but we won't necessarily know until the City crunch match.
If he plays every match until United have an unassailable lead, there is no chance of them slipping up this season.
Rio Ferdinand Deserves His England Chance
Frankly, Rio Ferdinand has been treated outrageously by England.
He should never have had the captaincy taken off him and given to John Terry. Fabio Capello has a lot to account for. For Roy Hodgson to leave him out "for footballing reasons" was a nonsense. Did he really make that decision, or was there influence from the FA?
Having sorted out his back problems, he has been close to his best form this season.
Today he showed us why he could have been a world-class sweeper and should far more often have the courage to bring the ball out from the back.
Twice in the first half he showed attacking brilliance. He brought the ball out and hit a 50-yard diagonal pass that landed plum in front of Ashley Young to create a clear-cut goal-scoring opportunity.
Then he repeated the dose, but kept his run going before slipping Wayne Rooney a pass at the last minute from which the striker scored the winning goal.
Sir Alex has given his permission and, with Rio surely being a certainty for at least one of England's World Cup qualifiers, they will qualify easily.
Some Players Clearly Need a Break
But not Wayne Rooney.
Robin van Persie looked jaded on Saturday night. He has now failed to score in his last seven matches for United. Let's hope it has nothing to do with age. He carried the team with his goals earlier in the season.
Those who don't think he has done enough to win the PFA Player of the Year award should look at the shift he puts in for the defence. Today, for example, he threw himself into a points-saving block in his own penalty area.
But while he is not the only player looking tired, rotation doesn't necessarily always work.
As we said earlier, Vidic is playing almost every EPL match now and the defence is rock-solid. Meanwhile, Evans and Ferdinand are rotated, which works.
But while Anderson is finally finding some fitness, he frankly isn't in the same league as Michael Carrick, Tom Cleverley or even Ryan Giggs.
He still gives the ball away too much, although he is showing signs of his former creative brilliance.
Sir Alex made eight changes to the team that played Chelsea only six days ago and it showed. It looked like once again they had to introduce themselves to each other.
Some of the passing and interplay was sterile and lacking in imagination or penetration. Some of the rotated players still have a lot to do to justify their place.
Danny Welbeck, for example, was excellent in the two Real Madrid ties. But he was ordinary today, which is a pity for Chicharito.
Michael Carrick Must Surely Be United's Player of the Year
Michael Carrick is one of seven United players picked by Roy Hodgson for England's next two World Cup qualifiers.
Like Ferdinand, it is in some senses an insult that he hasn't had more caps for England in recent years. While Frank Lampard is a regular, Carrick couldn't even make the squad for the European Championships.
However, at last Hodgson may have realised what the Stretford End has been celebrating for weeks.
Carrick is a class act.
He was on the bench today, but that was because he was one of the players who was clearly "knackered" last Sunday. He will also surely play in both of England's upcoming matches.
But today, in a 25-minute cameo, he showed his value to United. They were wobbling with just a 1-0 lead. Anderson needed substituting. Carrick came on and immediately brought a calmness to the proceedings.
He misplaced a couple of passes, but he settled things in front of defence, snuffed out Reading's attempts and was still able to motor forward to feed United's attacks.
He has played in all but one of United's Premier League matches this season and, together with Van Persie, is one of the main reasons why they are 15 points ahead in the run for the title.
He has had his detractors in the past. But at last people have realised how pivotal he is to United's success this season.