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Manchester United 1-0 Reading: A glimmer of hope at the Theatre of Dreams

Reading's players can be proud of their efforts despite a 1-0 defeat at the home of the Premier League leaders. While Wayne Rooney's deflected strike gave United all three points, Reading put in a spirited performance for caretaker-manager Eamonn Dolan that lifted the spirits of fans after a bleak month.

Michael Regan

On the one hand I'm delighted with this performance, one that certainly suggested we can compete in this division even with a depleted squad. Sadly that delight is tinged with regret as you inevitably begin to wonder, why weren't we playing like that when it really mattered against Wigan or Villa?

Dolan had just five days to prepare his side but lined them up in a 4-5-1 with Noel Hunt as the lone striker. Garath McCleary replaced Adam Le Fondre, Jem Karacan replaced Hope Akpan and Nicky Shorey made his first league start of 2013 in place of Ian Harte. The only selection worry was again the omission of Portuguese midfielder Daniel Carrico who failed to displace one of three defenders on the bench.

The first 20 minutes were largely lifeless, with Reading happy to get 10-men behind the ball and United happy to patiently probe. The home side nearly took the lead early on through an Ashley Young effort that flashed wide of Stuart Taylor's far post but didn't have too long to wait before Wayne Rooney grabbed the opener. Rio Ferdinand snatched possession from a lose pass and drove at the Reading defence before slipping the ball to Rooney whose shot hit Alex Pearce and looped over the helpless Taylor. It was a cruel way to concede and not the way you want to be beaten by United.

Still, Reading refused to buckle, keeping their shape and looking to break forward whenever possible. Stephen Kelly and Hal Robson-Kanu on one side and McCleary and Shorey on the other were getting forward often but we just lacked the right ball at the right time and didn't create much in the way of clear cut chances.

When a chance did come, it fell to Robson-Kanu, who saw his curling shot just sneak past David De Gea's right hand post.

That was about as close as Reading got and truth be told this was a game largely devoid of goalmouth opportunities, though Taylor did have to make a couple of good stops from Welbeck and Rooney.

Into the second half and Reading can feel very hard done by not to have had a penalty. It seems every week we're missing out on these marginal calls, though this one seemed more blatant then most as Vidic clearly pushed Mariappa from a set piece into the United area.

Other then that there's not much more to report. Reading threw on Blackman, Le Fondre and then Morrison but none of them really made an impact as United were quite happy to just see this one out and take a win that saw them move 15 points clear of second placed Manchester City.

Player ratings can be found here but generally nobody had a poor game and each of the 14 players used can be at least content with their performance at a rain-swept Old Trafford. After their booings last week, it was a nice bounce-back game for both McAnuff and Leigertwood, with the later clearly more comfortable in a five-man midfield then a four.

It's that point that brings us to the change of tactics and you have to wonder WHY Brian went back to 4-4-2 when a 4-5-1 with Hunt seemed to work a lot better. We never looked like being overrun and we created about as many chances with this formation as we did going 4-4-2 at Everton, or in our previous bad run before Christmas.

The players seemed a lot more composed and patient on the ball, with our ball retention a lot better. Certainly some of that comes from playing an opposition who seemed very, very comfortable but credit where it's due to Dolan's side who showed a willingness to try and change their style. Again, such a shift in style makes you wonder just what Brian McDermott and Nigel Gibbs were instructing their players to do over much of this season.

Sadly, despite all of those positives the fact still remains that we came away with nothing and after wins for Southampton and Aston Villa, we're now seven points adrift with just eight games left to play.

No matter how impressive it is to hold United to just one goal, we still created very little in front of goal and we've now scored just three goals in our last five with one of those an own-goal. The returns of Pavel Pogrebnyak and Jimmy Kebe can't come soon enough and here's hoping the Malian winger will be right for two-weeks time.

To escape from this position would be a miracle but after today I'm a little more optimistic that maybe, just maybe a miracle might happen. I'm not ready to put my money on it, but it gives us a little bit of hope to cling on to over the next two weeks before a daunting trip to Arsenal.