The build-up to this fixture had two key components: the return of Jaap Stam as a manager, and the opportunity for Wayne Rooney to equal Sir Bobby Charlton’s goal scoring record for Manchester United.
Such a precursor built the hype and expectation to such a level that you sensed something special was in the air. Unfortunately, it wasn’t to be anything special for The Royals.
This was my first trip to Old Trafford, and you could sense before you’d even got onto the concourse that this was an impressive stadium. Huge, well kempt, and intimidating. Stepping out and taking my seat, it was an overwhelming experience.
First half floundering
So you could understand why, when the referee, Andre Marriner, blew his whistle, Jaap Stam’s men were a bit like a rabbit caught in the headlights.
They were overawed by the occasion — perhaps even by some of their opponents — and in the opening 90 seconds, the Reds could have scored two goals. It was a blistering start and Reading didn’t have a hint, let alone an answer, to the questions Mourinho’s men were asking.
Rashford, as he would do for the duration of the game, broke through the cumbersome defence and tested Al Habsi, while Wayne Rooney looked like this was the game he’d decided was the game he’d match the record with an early shot that tested the Omani goalkeeper.
Reading still hadn’t shaken clear their grogginess by the time Anthony Martial had strolled into the area, passed the ball to Juan Mata who played a delightful dink into the path of Rooney, who used his knee to direct the ball past Al Habsi. 1-0. And the goal that will always be remembered as the record-equalling one for Rooney. We just have to hope he goes on to break the record so that this moment can be put on the back-burner.
If you thought that goal might shake The Royals into action, you’d be wrong. Wave after wave of Manchester United attack continued. The Biscuitmen just couldn’t get a foothold on the game and were pressed into mistakes when they did get the chance to try and play their own game.
United’s defensive tactic was contrary to that of Reading, who looked scared to put a tackle in on any attacker that came their way, preferring to stand off their men. That’s what happened when Martial strolled into the area and had the time he needed to curl a shot into the opposite corner. 2-0 down after 15 minutes, and the Red Devils hardly had to work for their goals.
It wasn’t until the half an hour mark that Reading looked to finally have settled and tried to string some attacks together — but it is the word ‘tried’ here that is the most important.
Beerens was anonymous, Williams outnumbered, Kermorgant wasn’t given a sniff, and McCleary struggled to get the best of Blind when he had the chance to take him on.
On the odd occasion that he did get past his man, there were few numbers in the box to aim for. Every attack felt toothless.
The one opportunity The Royals did have in the first galf came from a corner, with the ball launched outside the area to Van den Berg, who hit the ball hard and low. Liam Moore was in the right place at the right time to try and nudge the ball past Romero, but missed his cue and watch the ball go out of play for a goal kick.
Fortunately for Reading, things wouldn’t get any worse before half time. It was time for a rocket from Stam to try and salvage this game.
Second half self shooting
The second half brought an improved performance from Reading, who managed to get their foot on the ball and play some passing moves of their own. It’s worth considering, however, whether this was a deliberate ploy by Mourinho to conserve energy and make the most of their counter attacking opportunities. If it was, it certainly worked.
Reading built some form of momentum and had the ball for extended periods, but never managed to threaten Romero.
At the other end, United were cutting through Reading like a hot knife through butter when they got the ball. Their front four of Rashford, Rooney, Martial and Mata were running rings around the defence.
Joey van den Berg managed to get a toe on a Wayne Rooney cross that looked destined to find Rashford, but that didn’t keep him out for long. The youngster scored his first of the day when a long ball forward was misinterpreted by Liam Moore, which gave Rashford yet another opportunity to score. This time, the Manchester United academy product obliged and finished with ease.
You know those memory eraser devices used in the Men in Black movies? I think Reading fans may be yearning for a time when they exist because the next goal is unforgettable — and not in a good way.
Liam Moore passed the ball back to Al Habsi, who took a touch, poked it with his wrong foot, air kicked the ball, and could only watch as Rashford raced forward and spanked the ball into the empty net.
Oh dear, Ali Al-Habsi. #EmiratesFACup https://t.co/jSo8qFyK1B— BT Sport Football (@btsportfootball) January 7, 2017
It says a lot about Reading’s attacking play that a hopeful shot right at the death from the substitute, Jordan Obita, was given a rousing applause when it forced Romero to simply catch the ball.
That was that. Reading were out of the FA Cup, and Manchester United hardly had to work for it.
I compared the Royals to a rabbit in the headlights earlier. You know how that story usually ends? Yeah... That.
The only positives I can take from this game is that Liam Kelly did not look out of his depth on this occasion, and the second half cameo from John Swift was very impressive. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Manchester United are one of the biggest clubs in the world, have a huge, expensively assembled squad and are on a very good run of form.
The worst thing about this game isn’t that we lost. We all expected to lose. It’s the lack of fight. It was the lack of meaningful attack. It was the way they shot themselves in the foot, time and again giving the ball away with no good reason. Worst of all, there wasn’t a minute during this game that you felt Reading could get back into it. They were stunned from the first minute and never recovered.
Still, at least we can focus on the league now, eh? We’ll win the Premier League match next year...