After Reading worked tirelessly for three-quarters of the encounter, their energy levels eventually dropped, allowing United to get a quick-fire double from Nani and Javier Hernandez. A late goal back from Jobi McAnuff ensured a nervy ending, but United held on to ensure a meeting with the winners of the tie between Middlesbrough and Chelsea.
Sir Alex Ferguson made eight changes to the side that had drawn with Real Madrid five days earlier and it was certainly not a vintage United display, but they did just enough and Nani provided perhaps his best performance of the season in scoring and contributing an assist as well as providing a consistent threat.
It looked like it would be far more convincing for United, as the home side began as though they were set to provide Reading with an evening that they would quickly like to forget.
Inside two minutes Javier Hernandez dummied to floor two defenders and create an opening in the box, but saw his shot well blocked by a defender, before Welbeck’s follow up suffered the same fate.
Just a couple of minutes later, United again came close to an early goal.
Ashley Young supplied a fine reverse ball through to Welbeck down the left of the box but Adam Federici made a smart low save at his near post. Soon after Young himself saw a goal-bound effort denied by another defensive block.
But, after the opening onslaught, Reading deserve much credit for quickly setting about their task and largely keeping United as quiet as an Old Trafford lacking the raucous atmosphere of European nights. The flow of the first half was also not helped by two injury delays, the first for a cut to the head of Noel Hunt and then an ankle injury to Phil Jones that forced United into a change.
While Reading were pressing well and denying United time on the ball, they were also helped by a goalkeeper at the top of his game. Having received plenty of criticism this season, Federici excelled himself in one particular exchange. First the Australian pulled off a good save to deny Tom Cleverley’s low drive from 25 yards, before recovering superbly to turn Young’s follow up past the post when the United winger looked certain to score.
When the two sides met back in December, Reading scored twice from corners and they could have done likewise in the opening 45 minutes here. The crucial difference, though, was the presence of Nemanja Vidic. Twice the imposing center-back cleared the danger from threatening Reading corners, once spectacularly so to deny what looked like being a certain goal for Sean Morrison.
As the half came to an end, United again got back in the ascendency. Nani, who replaced Jones, came as close to anyone to breaking the deadlock with a stunning volley from the corner of the box that struck flush against the foot of the post. Moments later he showed his two-footed threat as Federici had to get across to the Portuguese winger’s long-range left-footed drive.
Nani again showed a glimpse at his threat from distance after the break with a rasping left-footed shot that just flew inches wide of the post with Federici at full stretch.
Almost coinciding with the arrival of Robin van Persie off the bench in the 64th minute, Reading began to tire and drop deeper allowing United to come forward at will.
It was an ominous sign and it did not take long for United to capitalize. Having been United’s main threat since his arrival, it was fitting that Nani broke the deadlock. Antonio Valencia laid the ball inside and Reading couldn’t get out quickly enough to close down Nani, who took a touch before drilling a shot low into the net with the help of a slight deflection.
Out of nowhere, Reading soon had a chance for an unlikely equalizer as Hunt headed the ball back for Le Fondre, but De Gea was alert to turn the powerful effort away.
Within seconds any hope of Reading preserving their lifespan in the competition appeared to have been extinguished. Nani this time was the supplier with a perfect near-post delivery of the sort on which Hernandez thrives and the Mexican was duly positioned to flash a header past Federici.
Yet United’s defensive frailty reared its head not for the first time this season. There will be much for Ferguson to lament about the manner of Reading’s goal to ensure a nervy remaining 10 minutes. Smalling was left five yards deeper than the rest of the United defense and his clearing header only reached McAnuff who was far too slow to be challenged, allowing the winger to take a touch and slot the ball past De Gea.
Reading have carved out a reputation as the comeback kings in the Premier League in recent weeks and they tried valiantly for an equalizer but United held on to keep their treble hopes alive.