Manchester United switch gears tonight and turn their attention to the FA Cup when they take on Reading FC. These two sides have met once already this season during a thrilling Premier League affair in December. At the Madejski Stadium, seven goals were scored in the opening 34 minutes but no more after that. Wayne Rooney's first-half brace helped lead the Reds to a 4-3 victory.
Form Guide: United's are well-positioned in all competitions. In league, Sir Alex Ferguson's side are twelve points clear of nearest title-contending rival Manchester City. In the UEFA Champions League, United just earned an impressive 1-1 draw at the Bernabeu in the first of two legs off their knock-out tie with Real Madrid. In the FA Cup, passage to the 5th round has been earned after defeats of West Ham United and Fulham.
Team News: Paul Scholes' lingering knee issue is expected to keep him out for another fortnight. Darren Fletcher is unavailable for the remainder of the season due to illness.
Form Guide: In the Premier League, the Royals are currently in a relegation fight as they sit 18th in the table with 23 points from 26 matches. Brian McDermott's side are on a run of good form, though, as they've emerged victorious in 6 of their past 9 contests -- despite losing 1-2 last weekend at Stoke City. They defeated Crawley Town and Sheffield United to reach this stage of the FA Cup.
Team News: Jason Roberts and Alex McCarthy are unavailable.
United: Ferguson has said to expect some rotation from the side that featured in Madrid. David de Gea -- one of the heroes at the Bernabeu -- is the No.1 but Anders Lindegaard could get a game. In central-defense, any two of Nemanja Vidic, Chris Smalling, Rio Ferdinand, Jonny Evans, or Phil Jones could start -- the latter three, though, all started in Madrid. At right-back, any of Rafael, Jones, or Smalling is possible while at left-back, either Patrice Evra or Alexander Buttner will start. The club has made the FA Cup a priority this season so it's uncertain how much rotation will occur in the back.
In midfield, it seems very possible that Tom Cleverley and Anderson feature. That could mean a rest for Michael Carrick. Out wide, two of Antonio Valencia, Nani, or Ashley Young are anticipated but Ryan Giggs is possible to start as well. Up front, Javier Hernandez (Chicharito) is deserving of a game. He could be partnered by any of Wayne Rooney, Shinji Kagawa, Robin van Persie, or Danny Welbeck.
Reading: McDermott's first priority as manager is to keep his side up in the Premier League so it's uncertain if he'll rotate his squad. His goalkeeper and back four have remained unchanged for their past four league ties -- Adam Federici, Adrian Mariappa, Alex Pearce, Ian Harte, and Stephen Kelly -- so they are the most obvious candidates to start. Nicky Shorey and Sean Morrison, though, are in contention as well.
In our Q&A with Reading fansite 'The Tilehurst End', they suggested that midfield stalwart Mikele Leigertwood could be given a rest. In addition, they pointed out that (the appropriately named) January signing Hope Akpan is cup-tied. Daniel Carrico, Danny Guthrie, and Jem Karacan are possible to start in central-midfield.
The amount of attackers will be dependent on if McDermott elects to choose a 4-4-2 or 4-5-1 system. The latter is the shape the Royals have started games with as of late but as The Tilehurst End points out, if Pavel Pogrebnyak is given a rest -- the only man on the squad capable of being deployed as a lone striker with Roberts being injured -- they could go with two up front. Super-sub Adam Le Fondre and Noel Hunt might be given starts.
Out wide, Jimmy Kebe is first-choice on the right. If he's rested, then Garath McClearly is likely to deputise. On the left, McClearly is possible as is captain Jobi McAnuff. Nick Blackman is cup-tied so he won't feature.
Diagram 1: Possible starting XI's.
* The basics of Reading: It's a pretty simple approach for the Royals -- swing the ball out wide, fly down the flanks, and then pump in a cross. 23% of their passes are played in the middle third of the pitch and this is the least amount in the league. As of late, McDermott starts his side in a 4-5-1 shape in order to solidify his team's shape. Late in matches, he tends to switch the shape to a 4-4-2 while bringing on Le Fondre. It's certainly works for them as they've had some late-game magic in the past month or so.
Up front, it's 'the Pog' that tends to play the thankless and isolated role of a lone striker. He generally does well to bring others into play. The key-man at the moment might be Kebe on the right-flank. The Mali international delivers a good ball, he's got pace, and when crosses come in from the opposite side, his strength allows him to get to balls at the far-post. Evra cannot switch off if this occurs. The simplest defensive key against Reading is to close down quickly out wide and prevent from being overloaded out there while defending well in the box when crosses do get whipped in (this seems like a good game for Vidic) -- both the initial clearance must be effective while winning the second-ball is important as well.
* Possession and tempo: Possession is generally easy to have against the Royals and this is evident by their 40% possession average and 69.2% pass accuracy rate -- both figures are last in the league. The key, though, to maintaining control against them is to dictate the tempo. When Reading do get into a good rhythm and are flying down the flanks, United's central-midfielders will need to establish calm by keeping the ball and playing simple passes in order to slow the game down. They'll also need to read the game and up the tempo when necessary. This could occur when United have long spells of possession but no penetration. A long cross-field pass could do the trick, as could a driving Anderson run through midfield, or some quick passing combinations between Cleverley and the attackers could be the change of pace needed.
KO: 8:00pm GMT, 3:00pm EST | Old Trafford
Live TV: ESPN (U.K.), FOX Soccer (U.S.)
Referee: Andre Marriner
Odds: Manchester United 1/4, Draw 5/1, Reading 10/1