Last updated : 31 December 2006 By Ed


Whatever Sir Alex Ferguson wished for, you can be assured it was dwarfed by yesterday's gifts. Not only did Manchester United secure a win over Reading, but 200 miles away Chelsea were losing further ground in the slog for the Premiership title. It will be a very happy 65th birthday celebration today.

United go into 2007 and tomorrow's match at Newcastle United with a six-point lead which is a splendid present for any manager of any age. But when Ferguson celebrates becoming British football's most recent pensioner, there is a fair chance he will also toast the most important conversation he had in the old year - the one that changed Cristiano Ronaldo's mind and kept him at Old Trafford.

Five months ago, with the nation primed to heap abuse on him for his part in England's World Cup exit, the Portuguese winger was quoted as being intent on joining Real Madrid. Cue Ferguson at his most persuasive, and Ronaldo committed himself to Manchester United.

Ronaldo scored twice yesterday to bring his tally to 12 for the season and six in the last three games. He, more than anyone, is the reason why United have gained an advantage over the champions and why Ferguson had a smile the size of Old Trafford's South Stand last night.

"We said at the beginning of December that if we were top on New Year's Day we'd be delighted," Ferguson said, reflecting a maximum haul of nine points from the holiday fixtures. "It gives us an outstanding chance. But we're not looking behind us, we're looking ahead to some big matches, starting with Newcastle. That should be a terrific game."

Not that yesterday's was anything but compelling. Ferguson described his side's defending as the worst of the season but that was a little unjust on Reading, who were opponents who refused to be cannon fodder. Fresh from holding Chelsea on Tuesday, they drew level through Ibrahima Sonko after Ole Gunnar Solskjaer had put United ahead and caused consternation when Leroy Lita dragged the score to 3-2 in stoppage time, even though Sam Sodje had been sent off for two bookable offences. Fortunately for an old man's blood pressure, they could not extract an equaliser.

Like their Boxing Day fixture against Wigan Athletic, United were better for half-time. Reading were the superior team in the first 20 minutes, Glen Little mis-hitting a shot that that trickled by a post and Lita flashing a drive just wide in the 11th minute.

Visitors to Old Trafford usually need to make these rare spells count and United duly gained control, increasing the pressure until Steve Coppell's team cracked. Ronaldo and Solskjaer were denied by Hahnemann in the 28th minute and Wayne Rooney had a clear header four minutes later which ought to have sounded a warning. Instead, Solskjaer was given the freedom to meet Ronaldo's cross and head it powerfully into the top corner.

Reading finished? Far from it. Nicky Shorey's free-kick four minutes later had Edwin van der Sar caught in a fog of uncertainty and as the United keeper came for the ball Sonko got a touch on it to head into an empty net.

Ronaldo hit the bar with a header but it was the introduction of Ryan Giggs for the second half that provided the catalyst for the victory. Suddenly United's movement scattered Reading's man-for-man marking and the effect was almost as immediate as it had been on Tuesday, when Ronaldo scored with his first touch against Wigan. Giggs and Ronaldo exchanged passes on the right and when the latter crossed, Solskjaer was lurking at the near post and his header was only just clawed away.

The momentum was building and it reached spectacular fruition in the 58th minute. Giggs passed into the area and Rooney turned possibility into probability with a flick of his heel. Solskjaer beat Sonko and curled the ball round Hahnemann only for it to hit the post. It is hard to keep Ronaldo out of the script in recent weeks, though, and he was first to the rebound, tapping the ball in from two yards.

Sodje's dismissal for a late challenge on Gabriel Heinze and holding back Rooney swung the match further towards United and the third goal was almost as predictable as the identity of the scorer. Giggs delivered a cross from the right and Ronaldo - "he's the one player every Premiership manager would love to have," Coppell said - stole in at the far post.


This was quite a day for the pensioner now in charge of Manchester United. He saw his side make it nine points out of nine over the holiday period while Chelsea were shipping another two at home. At present only Arjen Robben's last-gasp winner at Wigan last weekend is taking the title race into 2007.

'That was our worst defending of the season,' United's Mr Grumpy complained. 'We all went to sleep at the end, but of course I'm delighted to be six points clear. I've always said if we could go into new year on top we would have an outstanding chance.'

On the eve of his sixty-fifth birthday, Sir Alex Ferguson issued notice that age is not withering him. 'I shall take umbrage if the media try to typecast me as a pensioner,' he warned. That statement poses a question: How would anyone notice the difference? Another one, after 20 memorable years at Old Trafford, is how this story is going to end. And when, exactly? 'Many people work well into their eighties these days,' Ferguson said ominously. 'They have lively minds and are as active as ever.

'Critics were suggesting not so long ago I was past my sell-by date and presiding over a crumbling empire. What they didn't seem to understand was that we were moving from one era to another and it is well nigh impossible to make a seamless join while this process is happening. We fell back a little but now you can see the fruits of our transitional work and I certainly don't feel like turning my back for a few more years.'

And who would, looking down on the league with 53 points at the turn of the year. If United are not quite hitting all the top notes at the moment it is only because Ferguson is taking the opportunity to rotate a few players. Louis Saha and Ryan Giggs sat this one out at the start, with Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic suspended and Gary Neville rested until tomorrow at Newcastle, yet United were still brisk enough to see off the spirited Reading side that held Chelsea at Stamford Bridge.

The two goals that brightened an undistinguished first half arrived within six minutes of each other. Wayne Rooney had scuffed a volley at one end and Glen Little pushed a shot wide at the other before Cristiano Ronaldo opened up Reading in the way only he can. Bewildering Little with flickering feet rather than actual movement, Ronaldo sent over a cross from a stationary position that picked out Ole Gunnar Solskjaer perfectly. The striker's anticipation gave him a start on Ibrahima Sonko and the accuracy of a glancing header from the six-yard line seemed to take Marcus Hahnemann by surprise.

Anyone who expected Reading to roll over has not been paying attention this season, however, and Steve Coppell's side were quickly back on terms. The visitors made a couple of half-chances around the edge of the penalty area before equalising from a set piece. Captain for the day Edwin van der Sar will not be thrilled with replays of Nicky Shorey's free-kick, one he tried to reach but succeeded only in stranding himself when Sonko's head met the ball first.

The United response was to send on Giggs for the second half and step up their attacking efforts. Solskjaer had a header saved, Rooney shot too high and Giggs headed wide in a flurry of activity straight after the restart. A cool finish was what was needed and Rooney, firing too high, was not quite up to the task when Ronaldo supplied him in the 54th minute after a curving run and a delightfully weighted pass.

Saha must have been fretting on the bench, but Solskjaer is still your man for a cool finish. He only managed to hit a post after Giggs and Rooney slipped him through after almost an hour, although with Reading's defence all over the place it was a simple matter for Ronaldo to snaffle the rebound.


Sir Alex Feguson said: "I've always liked being with young people," in the pre-match build-up. It is the kind of statement that gets Michael Jackson into trouble but sounds reasonable coming from Ferguson. The manager becomes an OAP today but his youthful footballers are keeping him evergreen.

Cristiano Ronaldo was brought off for a rest after winning yet another match for Manchester United. Ferguson came down to the touchline to give him high-fives. Most un-pensioner like.

Ferguson bet Ronaldo he cannot score 15 goals this season, so perhaps in substituting the player he was trying to protect his heating allowance. After scoring two goals in a game for a third consecutive match Ronaldo is already up to 12.

United were not at their most ruthless and made defensive errors, ensuring they were pushed hard by enterprising Reading, who caused cold sweats around Old Trafford when Leroy Lita took advantage of Mikael Silvestre missing a long ball to make it 3-2 in stoppage time. Earlier, Ibrahim Sonko had punished Edwin Van der Sar's misjudgment to equalise Ole Gunnar Solskjaer's opener.

Steve Coppell's men defended assiduously and it was tight until Ronaldo broke the shackles. On the hour, Ryan Giggs found Wayne Rooney, whose pass freed Solskjaer to race beyond Sonko and cut across before shooting against the far post. It came out sharply to Ronaldo but he buried the rebound.

Ronaldo then gave United the cushion Lita's goal proved was required, stealing into the six-yard area from what may have been an offside position to ram home Giggs' cross on the volley. The roar for the No 7 was equalled only by the announcement of Chelsea's draw against Fulham.

"It's pointless talking about the title. We've still got to go to Liverpool, Chelsea, Arsenal, Everton and Tottenham," said Ferguson. A six-point advantage plus goal difference is beginning to look handy, though.

Containment was Coppell's priority but his five-man defence belied Reading's ability to be expansive on the break. Though Ronaldo went through to bring an early save from Marcus Hahnemann with a shot from a narrow angle, soon Kevin Doyle was fooling Wes Brown and finding Glen Little with a clever cut back. Little pulled his shot wide and it took United some time to realise they were in for a game. In midfield there was an unusual lack of care about their passing and urgency about their work. Paul Scholes, suspended, was missed.

United finally began clicking and Ronaldo forced Hahnemann to parry with a firm header, with Solskjaer almost converting the loose ball.

When the opener came, it was all about Solskjaer's instincts and Ronaldo's two-footedness. Ronaldo faced both Little and Graeme Murty on the left and the pair showed him inside. Against most wingers this would have been sensible, but Ronaldo has no weak side, and with his right foot arrowed a cross to the near post where Solskjaer, as he seems to have done thousands of times, though this was ‘only' United goal number 123, got in front of his marker and placed a clean header into the net.

Van der Sar's unusual error let Reading back in. Nicky Shorey delivered a free kick from deep and the keeper misguidedly decided to rush out to beyond the penalty spot to punch. He had too many men in front of him and Sonko rose highest to send a back-header over the stranded goalkeeper and in.


True greatness at the very pinnacle of the world game awaits the young man called Cristiano Ronaldo. All season his form has been soaring, his creative skills mesmerising opponents and unquestionably taking him to a place alongside the legends of his famous club - Edwards, Charlton, Best, Law, Cantona, Busby and the rest. International accolades will surely follow.

Here on a day to be joyful, when the supporters really were singing in the rain, he was dancing past flying boots with his patented step-overs, making one goal and scoring two before Sir Alex Ferguson hauled him off after 77 minutes to rest ahead of tomorrow's match at Newcastle.

When the news came through that Chelsea, United's biggest title-chasing rivals, had only drawn, the 73,000 went wild and Reading's fightback was forgotten.

These are gorgeous days for fans of the team they like to call the Red Devils and no one could have thrilled them more than Ronaldo, a player who will glow with world-wide fame as he matures.

As Ferguson put it: "We all think he is the best in the league. He is a fantastic lad who is getting better all the time. I am pleased for the boy. He works hard at his game."

Reading manager Steve Coppell, who felt there was more than a hint of offside about United's first and third goals, added: "Ronaldo has the world at his feet. He is the player every Premiership manager would love to have. This is a fantastic arena and he dominated it."

Reading were brave, defiant and resilient, but never looked like winning. When Coppell gazed around the ground beforehand he might have felt a twinge of nostalgia, for he made 373 appearances as a quick and tricky winger for United, scoring 70 goals. At the start of his Old Trafford career, after being signed from Tranmere Rovers, he completed a degree in economics at Liverpool University. He was always one of the game's brightest.

Coppell arrived with a plan to stop the flow of United's rhythm. He even suggested, tongue firmly in cheek, that Ferguson, a pensioner after celebrating his 65th birthday yesterday, should give the mercurial Ronaldo a Saturday off. Paul Scholes and Nemanja Vidic had enforced rests through suspension while Louis Saha and Ryan Giggs were on the bench with Gary Neville among the suits, though he will play at Newcastle.

Reading's man-marking defensive plan worked up to a point, but they could not negate the bewildering, bemusing talents of Ronaldo, 21, who was born and raised on the island of Madeira. He is more than halfway to the greatness predicted of him and the trickery that helped to create United's 33rd-minute goal was pure box-office entertainment.