Manchester United kick off their FA Cup campaign at Old Trafford this weekend against Reading. With virtually no chance to win the Premier League and a tough tie against Paris Saint-Germain awaiting in the Champions League, the FA Cup stands out as the club’s most realistic route to silverware. Plus, a trophy would only strengthen Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s case for full-time employment.
A year ago, the Reds progressed all the way to Wembley, before suffering a tough-luck loss to Chelsea in the final. United battered the Blues for most of that match, but couldn’t find a way past their stubborn defense. Hopefully, that close loss fuels the players to go one better this time and win the competition.
On current form, Manchester United must be considered among the favorites. The club has won all four league matches under Solskjaer, equaling the mark set by Sir Matt Busby in 1946. The latest win came Wednesday evening on Tyneside when United defeated Newcastle 2-0.
The Reds dominated possession at St. James’ Park, but struggled to convert their advantage into goals. Solskjaer showed his pragmatic side by keeping his fullbacks deeper than in previous games. Newcastle tried to draw as many opposing players forward before counterattacking into open space, so Solskjaer’s restraint proves that there’s far more in his tactical toolbox than just all-out attack. Against Reading, though, expect to see the fullbacks bombing forward as usual.
United’s defense looked far from assured at Newcastle, but managed to keep a clean sheet for the first time since November. “We’ve had a clean sheet in every single game, apart from set-pieces,” Solskjaer joked afterwards. “When you keep a clean sheet, you’ve always got a chance to win a game because we’ve got that quality going forward. To keep one of them is a bonus and it’s great.”
Alexis Sánchez returned from injury with a substitute appearance, coming on with Romelu Lukaku shortly after the hour mark. 38 seconds later, Lukaku fired United ahead with his first touch of the game. Can’t ask for a better impact off the bench than that. And, considering Marcus Rashford’s sizzling form, Big Rom better get used to the super-sub role.
While everything’s coming up roses for Manchester United, Reading sink further into oblivion. It’s been a brutal year for the Berkshire club in the Championship. In early December, Reading sacked manager Paul Clement, leaving new boss Jose Gomes precious little time to set things right. Not everyone hits the ground running like Ole.
Reading hosted Swansea City on New Year’s Day, hoping to start 2019 with a big win. Uh, that didn’t happen. The Swans dominated from start to finish, with the home side grabbing a late consolation goal to avoid a humiliating shutout.
Winless in ten and not far off the foot of the Championship table, it looks quite bleak for the Royals. Gomes better get his new squad on track soon or they can start planning for life in League One next season.
Amidst a struggle like this, the last thing Reading wants is to take on a Manchester United side firing on all cylinders. “It’s a cup game,” Gomes said, putting on a brave face before this obvious mismatch. “Everything can happen. It’s a game that they must enjoy and get rid of all the pressure. It is a game that we cannot say we are under pressure that we must win.”
Reading’s defense has a distinctly Manchester United flavor to it — with John O’Shea and Tyler Blackett regular contributors. But don’t count on welcoming them back to Old Trafford on Saturday. Blackett’s finishing up a suspension and O’Shea might get a rest considering his heavy workload (at age 37) and the relative unimportance of this cup tie to his relegation-threatened club.
Up top, Reading’s Yakou Meite hasn’t scored in nearly two months. Another forward option is young Danny Loader, a prolific marksman in the reserves who Gomes has tabbed for Premier League action in every game so far. Loader hasn’t broken through with a top-flight goal yet, but picked up an assist against Swansea City.
Solskjaer may counter with some youngsters of his own this weekend. Angel Gomes came off the bench on Boxing Day and United has plenty more academy talent pushing for a first-team chance. The FA Cup should provide the caretaker manager the perfect chance to blood some of these prospects.
Get Diogo Dalot back on the pitch, give Gomes some more time, and maybe even get crazy with a debut for Mason Greenwood or James Garner.
After Saturday, Ole and the boys jet off to Dubai for a little fitness work. Let’s put reeling Reading to the sword, recharge the batteries in Dubai, and get ready for the biggest test of the young Solskjaer era — Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.