The only tie of this round to feature two Premier League sides still has an air of mismatch about it. The 4-3 victory for United at the Madejski stadium in December springs to mind with inevitable momentum. But despite that evenings’ defensive perilousness, a lower scoreline is expected at Old Trafford this time around.
It could be forgiven for assuming United have been pitted with Chelsea in the sixth round draw. "Or Middlesbrough; or Reading." They are minor details. No high horses please; we’re all thinking the same thing.
But Reading will hope to escape the drab reality of an arduous and draining relegation battle that they will have to claw out of with every fingernail available if they wish to retain their premier league status. With that in mind, it’s not inconceiveable that Brian McDemott will allow his players to lose some of their inhibitions and play with an element of abandon on Monday evening. A defeat here for his side is expected. But McDermott will look to expose any element of nonchalance from the home side.
Sir Alex Ferguson himself highlighted any expected disregard from his players. He inevitably has spoken respectfully of Reading’s capacity to fight, but preceded it with a warning that appeared to allude to himself also.
"In many people's eyes Monday would be, ‘yes, it's Reading, we have just been to Madrid, it was a great night, Monday will take care of itself’. Monday can’t take care of itself. We have to take care of that.”
Still, Ferguson admits some changes will occur; this should see the return of Ashley Young, Nani and Javier Hernandez. Paul Scholes remains unavailable for another fortnight with a knee injury. Captain Nemanja Vidic also looks a good prospect to return.
The visitors will carry out late fitness tests on Mikele Leigertwood and Jimmy Kebe who are carrying minor knocks. Goalkeeper Alex McCarthy will remain absent with a shoulder injury, whilst Jason Roberts will continue his recuperation from his hip complaint. Noel Hunt and Adam Le Fondre, who impressed from the bench in last weeks defeat at Stoke, are in contention to start.
The magic of the cup could be short lived in this match if united are clinical from an early stage. But Reading, last weeks defeat aside, are in good form. Victories over West Bromwich Albion, Newcastle and Sunderland and a 2-2 draw with Chelsea see them in realtively rude health.
Reading will look to shut down the United midfield with a focused and organised performance. However their penchance for losing possession will have to be reigned in.
After the impressive and solid display in Madrid, United will feel confident that they have too much for their visitors. Ferguson mightn’t allow complacency. But the wheels of inevitability could turn quickly in his sides favour.