Manchester United remain on course for a mouthwatering quarter-final against Chelsea after edging Reading 2-1 in their fifth round FA Cup tie at Old Trafford.
Despite a host of early chances for United, Reading enjoyed the lion’s share of possession in a closely contested first half.
But after Nani came on as a late first half substitute for the injured Phil Jones, he turned the game on its head, scoring the first and setting up a second for Javier Hernandez to put United in control of the tie.
Jobi McAnuff pulled a goal back to make it a nervy last 10 minutes for the home side but, despite a typical late Reading charge, United held firm to keep Sir Alex Ferguson’s dreams of a second historic treble alive.
United came out of the blocks like a steam train and could have been two up in the opening two minutes. Danny Welbeck combined with Hernandez on the edge of the box but the Mexican dallied slightly too long in getting his shot away, his blocked shot falling to Welbeck who miscued his effort to Valencia, who in turn headed over.
A minute later and Welbeck had a second chance after being played in on goal by Ashley Young and this time he caught his shot well, forcing Adam Federici into a fine save low to his left.
Despite their early chances, Reading did well to weather the early storm and began to dominate possession. The visitors forced a succession of corners and two fine clearing headers from Nemanja Vidic under pressure from Sean Morrison kept the scores level.
But it was United who continued to create the better chances and Federici was forced into a fantastic double save, palming Tom Cleverley’s fierce drive into the path of Welbeck before reacting brilliantly to turn his goalbound effort around the post.
Reading continued to press United into mistakes all over the pitch with a relentless work rate and David De Gea was forced into a save of his own from an Adam Le Fondre shot that was arrowing into the corner.
With under 10 minutes of a combative half remaining, Ferguson was forced into a reshuffle after a worrying knock to the ankle of Jones, who came off the worse after going for a 50-50 challenge with Adrian Mariappa. The England player later left Old Trafford on crutches and his fitness will be of concern to Ferguson with key fixtures coming up, including the Champions League last 16 second leg against Real Madrid on March 5.
On came Nani and he had an immediate impact, crashing a first-time shot off Federici’s far post in the final minute of normal time in the half. And in the fourth minute of time added for a blood injury to Noel Hunt after a nasty early clash of heads with Vidic, United almost had the opener with the last kick of the half, Nani again forcing the Reading keeper into a fine save.
United started the second half in the same vein as they had in the first, dominating possession and forcing the Reading players back on their heels. Anderson forced Federici into further heroics by palming his shot round for another corner before the increasingly influential Nani rifled a shot just wide.
With Reading legs visibly tiring, one sensed the goal was coming and it came as no surprise when it came from the man wearing number 17, Nani firing home with the help of a slight deflection off Morrison’s hand.
Straight from the kick-off and Reading were almost level, De Gea denying Le Fondre with a terrific reaction save after Hunt’s back header fell into the striker’s path. But Reading barely had time to reflect on the opportunity before they found themselves two down, Nani breaking free down the right before delivering a perfect cross onto the head of Hernandez, who timed his run perfectly to nod home.
Reading have proved this season time and time again that they are nothing if not resilient. They have scored in the final 10 minutes on no fewer than seven occasions and they were at it once again to make it a nervy ending for United’s players and fans. Hunt put enough pressure on Chris Smalling in the box for the ball to fall perfectly for McAnuff to slide under De Gea.
And Reading almost sealed yet another memorable comeback with practically their last chance of the game from their most likely source, Le Fondre’s header deflecting just wide of the top corner in the final minute of injury time.
MAN OF THE MATCH
Nani – Manchester United: Came off the bench to change the game in United’s favour. Scored their first, set up their second and could have had more but for Federici in the Reading goal.
MANCHESTER UNITED: De Gea 7, Jones 6, Smalling 6, Vidic 7, Buttner 6, Cleverley 7, Anderson 7, Valencia 6, Young 6, Welbeck 6, Chicharito 7. Subs: Carrick 6, Nani 8, Van Persie 6.
READING: Federici 8, Kelly 6, Shorey 7, Mariappa 7, Morrison 7, Karacan 6, Leigertwood 6, McAnuff 7, McCleary 6, Hunt 6, Le Fondre 6. Subs: Guthrie 6, Robson-Kanu 6.