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Mar 16, 2013

Ferdinand worthy of final jaunt in Rio

For Rio Ferdinand, the Manchester winter has brought an Indian summer in his career. It has been sufficiently hot that even Roy Hodgson, the man who consigned him to England's history, has been forced to revise his opinion. But Manchester United have been the main beneficiaries of his revival and their inexorable progress towards the title was maintained as a defender doubled up as a creator.

Fifteen points clear with nine games to go, United are in a position of almost unparalleled strength. Only Jose Mourinho's Chelsea team of 2006 have ever had more points at this stage of a season. The league table suggests this United side belong among the greats. The below-par performance certainly did not but a 24th league win was chalked up with the minimum of fuss. "Obviously this doesn't reflect the 15 points ahead we are," Sir Alex Ferguson said.

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• Payne: United tighten grip in damp squib

And as an exception in a subdued side, the limelight lingered on the renascent Ferdinand. Real Madrid and Chelsea can testify to his unyielding resolve. So, now, can Reading. Yet if there have been recent echoes of his Ferdinand at his peak of 2008 or 2009, the clock was turned back still further.

Whenever Ryan Giggs glides past a full-back or Ferguson provides a reminder of bygone days, revisiting the past is a regular a theme at Old Trafford. Besides continuing his imperious form at the day job of defending that has earned him an international recall, for six, first-half minutes, Ferdinand rewound time to his West Ham days. When, 16 years ago and in the dying days of the 20th century, he was first called up by England, he was more sweeper than stopper.

Here he was both. First came the sweeping, Beckham-esque cross-field ball for Ashley Young, who veered inside and whipped a shot across the face of goal. Then came the elegant surge out of defence, a throwback to the days when he was more adventurous. "We have always known that Rio has that ability to break forward into midfield," added Ferguson. "He doesn't do it as much as he used to, of course." Perhaps, therefore, Reading were caught by surprise. After Ferdinand's stroll deep into enemy territory, Wayne Rooney's shot looped up off Alex Pearce to leave Stuart Taylor stranded.

The 197th goal of his United career maintained his prolific run and capped a terrific day for an Evertonian. With 10 goals in his last nine starts, the man who was deemed surplus to requirements against Real Madrid has proved indispensable on the English stage. As Robin van Persie's goals have dried up, and the Dutchman's drought was extended to seven games, Rooney has stepped up.

Yet this victory was attributable to solidity more than strike power. Reading's threat, as Ferguson had feared, came largely from set-pieces. Crosses brought them three goals against the league leaders in December, but none in the rematch with Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidic standing tall in defence. A side who were too porous in 2012 have shored up at the back and have gone 537 minutes without conceding in the league, aided by the reunion of the old guard.

The 34-year-old was as assured as ever, the 31-year-old a little more rugged. His refusal to allow opponents past occasionally takes him into the realm of the illegal. When the Serb shoved Adrian Mariappa, Reading felt, it was another occasion. "It was a clear penalty but I think the referee thought I was on work experience," said Reading's academy and caretaker manager Eamonn Dolan.

One game into his career at the top for Reading - it was Ferguson's 1489th match at the helm for United - he has joined the ranks of the managerial moaners, even if one complaint was a little unusual. "He should have sent off Stephen Kelly as well," said Dolan. His right-back was cautioned for a challenge on Young that will not keep the winger out of the England squad.

"If we didn't get a point we wanted to perform well, get a foothold and make sure our goal difference wasn't harmed," Dolan added. Reading did all of those but, after six successive defeats, they are seven points from safety and only have eight games remaining.

For Dolan, or Brian McDermott's permanent successor, it could amount to mission impossible. Not that the temporary appointment seemed fazed by the pressure. Before proclaiming United the greatest club in the world and Ferguson the finest ever manager, he said: "It will be a lot more stressful tomorrow if our Under-12s are not passing the ball."

MAN OF THE MATCH: Rio Ferdinand - Run ragged by Tottenham in September and appearing on his last legs at times in the autumn, the veteran has regained his form and, now, his international place. Ferguson confirmed he will join up with the national team on Monday although the United support, whose allegiance is to club rather than country, advised Hodgson where he could stick Ferdinand's England call-up.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: "Most of the time we have been playing well," said Ferguson, accepting this was an exception. Vidic, Ferdinand and Rooney apart, few performed well. The manager made eight changes but it left his side a little underpowered in midfield and Michael Carrick was summoned as the insurance policy for the final 15 minutes.

READING VERDICT: Three games against United this season have brought three defeats, all by the odd goal. Should they go down, they can reflect upon near misses and Hal Robson-Kanu almost scored with a spectacular long-range shot. Yet respectably as they performed, it was hard to shake off the impression owner Anton Zingarevich pressed the panic button by sacking Brian McDermott. Dolan's bizarre post-match views suggested a man who may be lampooned if he appears before the cameras again. One quote seemed to have come from another Berkshire manager, David Brent, when he said: "I am a valuable commodity."

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