Support cast seize chance to make mark on Solskjaer
This was the least impressive of Manchester United’s victories under Ole Gunnar Solskjaer but, with five consecutive wins to his name, the interim manager could not have asked for a better start.
Reading equipped themselves well enough, but were toothless in front of goal. By contrast, a much-changed United were clinical, a penalty from Juan Mata following more Video Assistant Referee confusion and Romelu Lukaku’s third goal in as many games easing them into the FA Cup fourth round.
Yet Solskjaer knows he will get a much clearer idea of where his side stand after next Sunday’s visit to Wembley to face an in-form Tottenham. In that sense, it is good Solskjaer will have a full week to prepare. United flew to Dubai after the game yesterday for a warm-weather training camp, and Solskjaer already has a decent idea of where his focus will lie as he attempts to find a way to stifle Tottenham’s fluid, free-scoring attack while ensuring he does not negate his own.
“We’ve not conceded in open play yet in any of the five games, but still we’ll have to stop conceding chances,” he said. “We need to use this week well to work towards that game, but also towards Paris Sthave Germain and Liverpool in February. “You just don’t make it for the Tottenham game, we prepare for this one, but we also prepare for when we play the bigger and better teams.”
There are not too many who started against Reading who can realistically expect to begin the game against Tottenham but, of the nine changes Solskjaer made from Wednesday’s 2-0 win at Newcastle, Lukaku boosted his prospects with another predatory finish to claim his 13th goal in his past 14 FA Cup appearances.
It was more of a mixed afternoon for Alexis Sanchez, though. He set up Lukaku’s goal with a lovely through ball, but his first start since Nov 7 was cut short by a tight hamstring after little more than an hour and, while Solskjaer said he was hopeful the Chile forward would be fit for Spurs, the player is still struggling to catch a break.
“Hopefully he’ll be OK for next weekend, he was feeling his hamstring, but he should have told me one minute before because I made two subs,” said Solskjaer, who had to shift Sanchez out of his seat in the dugout following his substitution. “He’s been out a month, he’s had half an hour against Newcastle. Now he’s had 60 minutes, so it’s about building up again.”
Sanchez (below) might have scored before teeing up Lukaku for United’s second, cutting inside from an inviting position only to overrun the ball and get tackled. Solskjaer felt that was evidence of ring-rust. United supporters could tell him it has been the way of things for the past 12 months.
“I think maybe when he gets another few games under his belt, he would have finished it,” Solskjaer said. “He had one touch too many, could finished when he was driving through the box. He’ll be fine.”
Solskjaer has taken a decent look at the regulars and likes what he has seen, and so this was an opportunity to cast an eye over the support cast.
Somewhat surprisingly, the best of the lot was probably Matteo Darmian, oozing confidence as a makeshift centre-half, but there were other solid showings. Andreas Pereira was neat and tidy anchoring the midfield and forced a good save late on, Scott McTominay looked more composed than the chaotic figure he had been in the final months of Jose Mourinho’s reign and there was a first-team debut for attacking midfielder Tahith Chong, whose name was sung lustily.
Still, United remain very much a work in progress and so, clearly, does VAR. There were two issues. First, that referee Stuart Attwell hardly made it clear VAR was being consulted when Omar Richards upended Mata; fans left to consult a message on the scoreboards for confirmation of what was happening. And, second, that it took the VAR what felt like an age to make his decision. There was at least no fuss from Mata from the spot. Reading might have made it more interesting had Callum Harriott scored when put clean through by substitute Sone Aluko in the 53rd minute but he shot straight at Sergio Romero, who had also denied Danny Loader in the first period. Aluko, whose half-time introduction improved Reading, later had Romero scrambling to push aside a shot.
But Reading manager Jose Gomes summed up his team’s main problem when he bemoaned their “lack of killer instinct”. Tottenham are likely to be more ruthless, but these are encouraging beginnings for Solskjaer.
Leading man: Juan Mata ignores the confusion surrounding the VAR intervention to put United ahead from the penalty spot yesterday