Nani intervention a telling reminder
A flamboyant Portuguese winger has occupied Manchester United's thoughts for weeks. Sadly for Nani, it has rarely been him. Yet, even if only for an evening, the Cristiano Ronaldo tribute act wrestled his compatriot out of the spotlight and swept United into the FA Cup quarter-finals. Now only Middlesbrough or Chelsea separate them from a trip to Wembley.
Yet for three-quarters of the game, all the Treble hunters got was trouble. Holding Real Madrid was exhilarating, being held by Reading irritating. Then Nani intervened. A quick-fire double of goal and assist in the space of three minutes eliminated the obdurate Royals and, perhaps, rescued a wretched season personally.
Sir Alex Ferguson held him responsible for United's exit from the Capital One Cup; now progress in the FA Cup was attributable to him. There were only six appearances in the four intervening, injury-hit months but he celebrated by pointing at the name on his shirt. For some, the reminder was necessary.
Given the perpetual scrutiny on United, it is an exaggeration to describe him as a forgotten man. "He's got great talent," Ferguson said. Yet a major figure has been marginalised and, in our preoccupation with the present, it is easy to forget what an influence Nani exerted in the previous two seasons. One of the select band of wingers capable of both scoring and creating a dozen goals a season, he ranked among the outstanding individuals of the 2010-11 campaign, even if his eventual reward was a place on the bench in the Champions League final.
United's three-pronged bid for glory offers an opportunity and, from an FA Cup run where they face Premier League opposition in every round to the Stretford End banner reading "Sex, Drugs and Andy Cole", common denominators with the days when there were apocalyptic warnings about the Millennium Bug are emerging everywhere.
Ferguson believes his current group is stronger than the class of 1999. "Sir Alex was talking about the best squad he has ever had and I wouldn't argue with that," said the beaten manager, Brian McDermott. A safer assertion may be that this pool of players is deeper than their illustrious predecessors. Eight of the boys of the Bernabeu dropped out of the team and, besides the 19 men granted a start over the two games, Ferguson still has the survivors of the last century, Ryan Giggs and the sidelined Paul Scholes. And Nani, whose lowly place in the pecking order seemed cemented when the team sheets appeared.
But one man's painful ankle is another's lucky break. Phil Jones was one of the few first choices to appear. His contribution was curtailed after a poor touch sent him hurtling into a challenge with Jobi McAnuff and grimacing as he left the pitch. He departed Old Trafford on crutches, meaning Ferguson may require another midfield enforcer against Real. Versus Reading, he opted for a mercurial winger.
Enter Nani. "I had a feeling he would win the match for us," Ferguson said. "You could see he is in great form." Within two minutes he had struck the foot of the post with a stunning volley. Then, after Ferguson sent for his deluxe Plan B - Robin van Persie, whose FA Cup outings have come as a substitute - his first replacement made the decisive contribution. Nani drilled a shot into the bottom corner and whipped in a cross that Javier Hernandez headed in.
Others are the men for the big occasion; the Mexican is rarely granted the chance to start then. Instead, he makes his mark in middling matches. This was a sixth goal in as many starts. "That's 15 goals he has got us this season," added Ferguson, who is hoping his three main scorers all reach the 20-goal mark.
Against another team, that would have signalled a quiet, comfortable ending. Yet it wouldn't be a Reading game without a Royals rally, McAnuff duly halved the deficit and the travelling fans grew impertinent. "We want some 'Fergie Time'," they chorused; the amount of it annoyed Scotland's most famous timekeeper. His frustrations would have mounted further had Adam Le Fondre's 94th-minute header gone under, not over, the bar.
"When we got ourselves back to 2-1. I thought we might nick a draw," McDermott added. But in a meeting of two teams who specialise in scoring late goals, there was no twist in the tale. United advance to the next chapter, still dreaming of partying like it is 1999 all over again.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Nani - Sometimes accused of being lacklustre, the man who crashed his car this week brought drive to United. It was a belated reminder of his ability.
MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: "Some of the football was fantastic," said Ferguson. Some of it, particularly for much of the first half, was unexceptional. But Tom Cleverley produced a promising performance, David de Gea maintained his fine recent form with a terrific stop from Le Fondre at 1-0 and United kept the unbeaten run going. It is now up to 16 games and many of his major players were rested ahead of Saturday's trip to QPR.
READING VERDICT: While it was a second successive defeat, there were reasons to be positive. Adam Federici is in terrific form. A first-half double save, from Cleverley and Ashley Young, was superb while Reading kept up their habit of scoring late goals. Regardless of the names in the squad, their spirit is a reason to believe they will stay up. They were epitomised by Noel Hunt, who needed six stitches in a head wound and required three shirts after the first two were bloodied, but kept going. McDermott expects him to be available for Saturday's relegation six-pointer against Wigan.