Wayne Rooney’s deflected first-half strike was enough to give Manchester United victory over Reading on Saturday and take them 15 points clear at the top of the Premier League.
After closest rivals Manchester City had lost 2-0 to Everton earlier in the day, United knew they had the opportunity to all but sow up the title at Old Trafford. But it was an uninspiring performance that they produced against the manager-less strugglers and Sir Alex Ferguson will have been relieved to simply have emerged with the win.
Having crashed out of the Champions League and let a two-goal lead slip to Chelsea in the FA Cup last weekend, this wasn’t the return to form for which fans may have hoped. Still, with Nemaja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand marshalling the United back line, Reading never looked like having enough to capitalize on United’s sluggishness. The one moment of concern for the home side was a penalty appeal for a push in the box by Vidic.
While the result takes United ever closer to their 20th league title, a defeat for Reading, led on the day by former academy head Eamonn Dolan, means they are now seven points from safety with just eight matches remaining.
Ashley Young produced the first effort of note on a sodden early evening at Old Trafford as his curler from the left of the area just evaded the far corner. Danny Welbeck also had a shot from distance that narrowly missed the target.
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Reading were doing well to restrict their opponents, but in the 21st minute United struck.
At the end of a week in which he was recalled to the England squad, Rio Ferdinand produced a reminder of his ability to come out of defense with the ball as he did to such impressive effect in his youth. Having intercepted the ball in his own half, the 34-year-old went on a marauding run upfield before knocking it on to Rooney on the edge of the box. The forward’s shot took a wicked deflection off of defender Alex Pearce and looped over goalkeeper Stuart Taylor and into the corner.
Many might have expected that more goals would soon follow, but Reading continued to work hard to keep the home side at bay, while United lacked urgency on the ball.
The visitors could even have grabbed an unlikely equalizer, but Hal Robson-Kanu’s fine strike form more than 20 yards out soared inches wide of the post with David de Gea at full stretch.
At the start of the second half, Reading might have had an even better opportunity to get back on level terms but their strong appeals for a penalty following Vidic's were to no avail.
United began to muster some pressure early in the period, but the closest they came to adding to their lead was a disappointing volley over the bar by Young, while a long-range free-kick from Robin van Persie forced Taylor to dive and turn it away
Perhaps missing the control in midfield of Michael Carrick until he came on in the final 20 minutes, the hosts continued to assert their normal control of proceedings. Still, United weren't made to pay for their inability to build on their advantage as they held out to move within touching distance of reclaiming their title.