Last season Championship side Middlesbrough came to Old Trafford to eliminate a Premier League team short on confidence from the fourth round of the FA Cup – but things have changed in the past year, as Reading found out. The United players and supporters have confidence in what is happening on the pitch under Erik Ten Hag. There were no concerns when chances were wasted in the first half because everyone knew more would come.
There was a Brazilian feel to Manchester on a wet Saturday with Antony twisting and turning Reading defenders all night, Casemiro channelling his inner-Ronaldinho and Fred netting with the sort of flick few would have through him capable of prior to this season. The United fans even got to enjoy former Liverpool striker Andy Carroll being sent off for two bookable offences after an evening of inept challenges.
Ten Hag left little to chance, picking a very strong side for Reading manager Paul Ince’s return to Old Trafford. The Dutchman knows the importance of winning a trophy in his first season in charge and the FA Cup is the ideal competition.
United looked sharp, eager to ensure there were no hiccups against a side who lost 4-0 at Stoke in their most recent fixture. The moves flowed at speed, getting United in sight of the Reading goal on a number of occasions without breaching the barrier Joe Lumley. The goalkeeper punched away a Marcus Rashford free-kick and Christian Eriksen’s rebound was blocked but otherwise Reading survived the first quarter of the match unscathed.
In the opening half hour United enjoyed 84% possession and had 11 shots but only one on target. It felt like death by 1,000 chances for Reading and Antony was eager to create them all. In the end it was the 13th effort that crossed the line but without any luck to go with it. Tom Holmes’s interception looped inside the box for Wout Weghorst, on his home debut, to head across for Marcus Rashford to nod home. VAR was called for and it decided that Weghorst was offside for the original through ball from Casemiro despite the striker not being the intended target of the pass nor touching it.
It was Reading, however, who should have gone into the break with the lead when Tyrell Malacia wanted too long to clear a Baba Rahman cross from the left, allowing Junior Hoilett to nip in and shoot but David De Gea was in the way to repel his effort.
United were not loose after the break, which they started as they left off, with Antony finally producing the assist he had been envisaging all night to slip the ball through for his marauding compatriot Casemiro to dink over the onrushing Joe Lumley. The Brazilian doubled his tally soon after when he took aim with a curling shot from 30 yards that deceived the goalkeeper by flicking off Holmes’s head to help the ball land perfectly in the corner. Who needs a No 9 when your No 18 is twice as good?
“I expected [Casemiro to be this good] because when you see his profile, if you see his performances in the last years for Real Madrid it is magnificent,” Ten Hag said of Casemiro. “He plays at such a high level, he won four or five Champions Leagues, it is the highest trophy you can win in club football. He had such a massive impact. I think he was the first one who was always in the starting 11 for every manager at Real Madrid. You will understand he will also have that impact in England football.”
It was Casemiro who saw off Carroll, too, thanks to a silly lunge on the Brazilian soon after his first booking. The referee had no choice but to produce the red card. To make matters worse for Reading’s No 2, he forgot where the tunnel was and walked in the wrong direction until being politely pointed towards the showers.
Fred’s flick made matters worse for the 10 men of Reading but they got mildly better when Amadou Mbengue flicked in a consolation from a corner, although everyone knew it was not the start of a comeback.
“I felt if we played United a year ago, we would have come here thinking we have a right chance of beating them,” Ince said. “I felt United had lost their presence, [with opponents] thinking they could come to Old Trafford and get something as Burnley and Aston Villa did. I think under Erik Ten Hag in such a short space of time, he’s lifted the whole club.”