United driven by hurt of last season

Reading manager Brian McDermott believes the Premier League is witnessing the repercussions of Manchester United’s agonising title failure last season.

With the treble a realistic target considering their dominance of the league and a favourable result against Real Madrid in the Champions League, an FA Cup success would spark genuine comparisons to the treble success of 1999.

And McDermott, whose side travel to Old Trafford tonight, believes the pain felt on the final day of last term has inspired United’s position of dominance. "It’s a surprise to see United so far ahead in the Premier League when you look at the calibre of opposition they’re up against," he said.

"They’re 12 points in front with 12 games to go and Alex Ferguson won’t take anything for granted, there’s no doubt about that.

"To move on the way they did from last season, to take that on to the pitch and that hurt, tells you the power of the people there. The hurt that day would have given them a tough summer, but you have two ways of going — you either go under as a club or get stronger. United have got stronger.

"We can relate to that in a small way because we had the play-off final [Reading lost 4-2 to Swansea in 2011]. We got stronger from our play-off final.

"No-one could have said that to me that night, because it was a really devastating blow. But you get up and move on and that’s what they have done."

Worryingly for his side’s chances the United players seem particularly focused on ending a nine-year drought in the competition.

Chris Smalling admitted he was stunned to discover that it had been that long.

They have won it 11 times, more than any other club, and it was famously Alex Ferguson’s first trophy as United manager. Indeed, that replay win over Crystal Palace sparked a run of four triumphs in the competition within nine seasons.

However, the successes dried up after the Red Devils defeated Championship outfit Millwall in 2004. They have lost two finals and two semi-finals since. And Ferguson has made it clear a change in fortune is required.

"I was quite shocked at how long it has been since United won the FA Cup," said Smalling.

"It is a massive competition and one we all look forward to. Before we played West Ham in the third round, the manager stressed how much we wanted to win this tournament. There are quite a lot of lads who haven’t won it despite being here for quite a while."

With plenty of changes anticipated for tonight’s fifth-round tie, including the likelihood of a start for Smalling, from the team that drew with Real Madrid on Wednesday, the strength of Ferguson’s squad is now becoming evident.

And, though the faces will change, there should be no lack of confidence given United are on a 15-match unbeaten run stretching back to a home loss to CFR Cluj in the Champions League two months ago.

"There is a lot of confidence and the results are showing," said Smalling. "We are going for three competitions, so there are plenty of matches for the whole squad to play in and we are peaking at the right time."

Not that Smalling is taking anything for granted. And it is not just due to the FA Cup’s enduring capacity to shock. After all, United have found it difficult to finish teams off at Old Trafford this season, whilst Reading have found some form since that encounter between the two sides at the Madejski Stadium in December, which the visitors edged by the odd goal in seven.

"No game is a foregone conclusion," said Smalling.

"Even in the league a lot of teams down at the bottom have beaten a teams at the top.

"I have seen quite a lot of Reading’s games. They play good football and have recently picked up a few points."

The incentive is there though, with Arsenal’s demise taking another Premier League heavyweight out of the road to Wembley. And Ferguson has made it clear he sees no reason why United cannot challenge for honours on all three fronts, and potentially emulate that historic 1999 Treble-winning campaign.

"The manager has stressed that he expects to go to the end in all three competitions," said Smalling.

"The FA Cup is notoriously unpredictable. Luton reached the fifth round this year, which shows that anything can happen so there is no point looking too far ahead.

"But our home form has been good and another victory can give us the impetus to get to another final."

In addition to Smalling, 14-goal striker Javier Hernandez is a likely starter.

Wide-men Ashley Young and Nani will also hope to be involved, whilst Tom Cleverley and Anderson should be chomping at the bit after also missing out on a starting berth at the Bernabeu.