Goals aplenty but United must watch their back

Reading 3 Man Utd 4
There is one footballing philosophy that makes the game sound simple — if you score more goals than the opposition, you will win.

Some have tried living by that dictum and failed, most memorably Ossie Ardiles with his ‘Famous Five’ forward line that took Tottenham to the brink of relegation in the 1990s.

By contrast, most title-winning teams tend to build their success on a sound defensive platform. Remember 1-0 to the Arsenal, or Jose Mourinho’s lean, mean defensive machine? Manchester United have always been somewhere in between, with Alex Ferguson sending out teams to score while not giving much away at the back.

But if the current crop of Red Devils are to remain on top this season, as they have done on four of the previous five occasions when they have led the table going into December, they cannot keep doing a “rescue job”, as Ferguson described their 4-3 win at Reading.

An early strike from Reading winger Hal Robson-Kanu saw United fall behind for the 10th time in the league this season before Anderson equalised and Wayne Rooney put the visitors in front from the penalty spot.

Poor defending from set-pieces then cost United dear as both Adam Le Fondre and Sean Morrison capitalised on poor positional play from the Red Devils’ defenders to head Reading into a 3-2 lead. The goals kept coming in the first half as another Rooney strike and a coolly taken goal from Robin van Persie meant all seven goals in the game were scored in a 34-minute period.

The win took United above their noisy neighbours City, and the two meet at the Etihad next Sunday.

United’s defending will have to be markedly better and the return of Nemanja Vidic cannot come soon enough — Ferguson revealed, he could be back in the next week.

Darren Fletcher, fit again after his own long-term absence through illness, says Vidic’s return will make a big difference. “He’s the club captain and a fantastic defender,” said the midfielder.

“It’s great that we’ve got Phil Jones and Chris Smalling back [from injury]. All these things are going to help us, moving forward. [But] when you’ve got your captain coming back, it’s always a good sign.

“We can’t keep conceding goals. Teams like City will definitely punish any slack defending.

“We are talking about it and trying to put it right. I think the biggest thing is we keep coming back. I know we keep saying it but it’s a lot more disastrous when you don’t come back. But we keep responding and that’s an important thing. It’s a good attribute to have.”

United are now three points ahead of City, and 10 clear of Chelsea, Tottenham and West Brom in joint third place. But Fletcher thinks it is too early to talk about a two-horse race.

“I don’t think you can rule out Chelsea. They’re still up there and so are others. You can’t rule out anybody before Christmas.”

On the derby, he added: “We saw how important it was last season. We lost twice and we lost the league. It was a major factor, so we don’t want to give them any advantage and I think it’s about time we got a result against them.”

Before that, is a dead rubber against FC Cluj, with United having won their group already.

“We’ve got to respect the competition and win the match but obviously there’ll be one eye on the derby. Whoever plays will be desperate to impress the manager and put in a performance ahead of the derby. We want to win every match we play and give us good momentum ahead of the derby.”

Reading have their own rivalry with Southampton, who are close to them geographically, in the relegation places and meet each other next week.

“We are going to Southampton and if we play like we did today, we will have no problems,” Le Fondre said.

“We showed what we can do by scoring three goals and creating a lot of chances against United. Hopefully we can repeat that against Southampton and Sunderland and score more goals. We’re bitterly disappointed with the result but we can take a lot of heart from the performance we put in.”

Manager Brian McDermott stressed the need to find some balance between attack and defence. “We’ve scored lots, and that’s what we have to keep doing. If we can keep doing that and shore up the other end we will be fine. You have to get the balance right.”

He admires Ferguson’s winning mentality, and is an avid reader of motivational books. “I have The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama at home. I’ll probably read that tonight!”

READING (4-4-2): Federici 5; Cummings 6, Mariappa 6, Morrison 7, Shorey 7; Robson-Kanu 6 (Hunt 85), Leigertwood 6, Tabb 6, McAnuff 6 (McCleary 80); Le Fondre 7, Roberts 5 (Pogrebnyak 70).

MAN UTD (4-2-3-1): Lindegaard 5; Evra 6, Evans 5, Ferdinand 6, Rafael 6 (Smalling 31); Carrick 7, Fletcher 7; Young 6, Anderson 7 (Jones 44), Rooney 8; Van Persie 7 (Welbeck 75).

Referee: M Halsey


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