Manchester United brushed aside the threat of Reading to move comfortably into the next round of the FA Cup and record their fifth straight victory under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer. First half goals from Juan Mata - from the penalty spot - and Romelu Lukaku secured the win.
United caretaker manager Solskjaer has made no secret of his desire to be considered for the position full-time. Given that ambition, and the fact that the FA Cup represents United’s best remaining chance of silverware this season, fans should not have been too surprised to see a starting line-up that was less youthful and experimental than many expected.
Still, Solskjaer kept his word about rotating the squad and made 9 changes to the starting XI that won on Thursday at Newcastle. Even though 10 of the 11 players in the line-up were full internationals, the changes told; in the early minutes, the Reds lacked the attacking coherence that has so far defined the tenure of the new manager.
United’s opening goal came after 20 minutes, with an assist from the video assistant referee. Alexis Sánchez attacked down the right before playing a ball into Fred. The Brazilian then exchanged passes with Mata before placing the ball into the corner of the net. The goal was ruled out for offside, but VAR was then called in. After a minute of review, a penalty was awarded for a clear foul on Mata as he played the final ball. Mata took the spot kick himself, and put United ahead after all.
The goal seemed to settle United down, and some of the slick and confident interplay that we’ve just started getting re-accustomed to returned after taking the lead. Had the still out-of-sorts Lukaku and Alexis been in better form, at least one of them would’ve buried one of the two subsequent chances that fell their way.
United were still below their recent best though, allowing Reading to get forward themselves, and the Royals were clearly not afraid to have a go. The visitors put together a few attacking moves of their own that could have made things interesting. If United were deserving of their 1-0 lead, it was by the slimmest of margins.
Reading’s decision to take the game to the home side came back to bite them just before half-time. A giveaway in midfield led to United doubling their lead; back-to-back diagonal passes from Andreas Pereira and Alexis cut open the Reading team and played Lukaku through on goal. The Belgian striker bagged his third goal in as many games after rounding the ‘keeper and finishing from a tight angle.
Reading were still unbowed, and started the second half with purpose - it took a full five minutes before United were even able to get out of their own half. The visitors’ best chance of the match came in the 53rd minute, when only a sharp Sergio Romero save kept out Callum Harriott.
Solskjaer made a full complement of substitutions just after the hour mark, but only 2 of them were planned. Promising young attacker Tahith Chong came on for Mata to make his competitive debut, and Marouane Fellaini replaced the inconsistent Fred. Just after those changes though, Alexis Sánchez pulled up with an injury and had to be replaced by Marcus Rashford.
Reading’s relative lack of quality eventually told, as they struggled to truly unsettle the home side. United for their part seemed happy to see out the result. Rashford had a chance to embellish the scoreline just before the 90 minute mark, but the in-form striker did the honorable thing and fell over inexplicably in the box instead.