Manchester United booked a place in the Emirates FA Cup fourth round as Ole Gunnar Solskjaer wrote himself into the Old Trafford history books, joining Sir Matt Busby as the only Reds manager to win the opening five matches of his tenure.
A Juan Mata penalty and a first-half added-time strike from Romelu Lukaku was enough to see off Championship strugglers Reading at Old Trafford. It wasn’t the best United display of the Norwegian’s caretaker era but following an arduous Christmas and New Year period, the new-look Reds came through comfortably enough, despite some scary moments that threatened a second successive clean sheet.
Inevitably with such a changed United XI there was a bedding-in process against Reading which led to a ragged opening to the contest.
Solskjaer had made nine changes from the side that had beaten Newcastle at St James’ Park in midweek and the six ever-presents in his first four previous matches in charge as caretaker boss were all given a break following their arduous festive-season programme.
United’s sluggish start gave Championship strugglers Reading some hope that they could pull off an FA Cup shock and arrest the Reds’ winning run.
The Royals had the best chance of a breakthrough after 17 minutes when they broke away and the ball fell nicely for Andy Yiadom as he burst into United’s area. But the right-back’s big moment in front of the Stretford End got the better of him and he ballooned his golden opportunity into the stand.
It woke the Reds up and soon after Solskjaer’s men were in front after a break whilst VAR sorted out a penalty incident for referee Stuart Attwell. Juan Mata had been floored in the box by defender Omar Richards but the official played the advantage.
Fred took up the play and fired home but was flagged offside by the ref’s assistant. After a minute, as replays were viewed. Attwell gave the spot-kick for the original foul on Mata. The Spaniard stepped up to beat goalkeeper Anssi Jaakkola for his fifth goal of the campaign.
It should have settled United and deflated Reading, who hadn’t won in their last previous ten games, but instead the visitors came at the Reds again. They had another glorious chance when Danny Loader was put clear. The striker rounded Sergio Romero but dallied and allowed the Argentinian to recover and put the ball out for a corner.
A Romelu Lukaku shot was saved and Callum Harriott blasted over for Reading and Yiadom had a blockbuster saved by Romero before United moved up a gear and scored a second goal. Four minutes into added-on time, Lukaku put distance between his side and the plucky visitors.
Mata was involved in the build-up and Alexis picked out a pinpoint pass for Lukaku to dart into the box. The Belgian’s touch took him around the keeper and he slid the ball in with his left foot.
The Reds had been living on a knife edge at times in the first half with Reading threatening a few times to grab a goal. It was no different at the start of the second half.
Royals boss Jose Gomes brought on sub Sone Aluko at half-time and he confidently took on United’s defence in the 53rd minute before slipping a killer ball though to Harriott who saw his shot expertly saved by David De Gea’s deputy Romero. Had he scored, however, there would have been a strong argument for offside as he received the pass.
Seconds after the hour, Solskjaer made his first changes as he handed 19-year-old Dutch youngster Tahith Chong his competitive senior debut. The 19-year-old was given an encouraging and welcoming round of applause by the man he replaced, Mata.
Marouane Fellaini came on for Fred and three minutes later United’s full complement of substitutes was used as Marcus Rashford came on for Alexis up front.
Reading had yet another chance to turn this United picnic into a panic when Romero had to touch an Aluko shot wide of his post for a corner as Gomes’ side continued to drum up the best goal opportunities.
United laboured to create further openings and had to be content in the end for a first-half double and a place in the fourth-round draw.
Manchester United: Romero, Dalot, Darmian, Jones, Young (C), McTominay, A Pereira, Fred (Fellaini 61), Mata (Chong 61), Alexis (Rashford 64), Lukaku
Subs Not Used: Grant, Matic, Garner, Martial
Scorers: Mata (22 pen) Lukaku (45+4)
Reading: Jaakkola; Yiadom, Ilori (Aluko 45), Moore (C), Richards; Rinomhota, Kelly; McCleary (Barrow 61), Swift, Harriott (Meite 77) Loader.
Subs Not Used: Walker, Gunter, O’Shea, Barrow, East