Manchester United v Reading
Saturday January 07, 12:30
Live on BT Sport 2/Betfair Live Video
At a club like Manchester United, criticism and scrutiny comes with the territory. After a barrage of flak in the early months of Jose Mourinho's reign, the Red Devils appear to have finally clicked into high gear. They have won their last six Premier League games, and in all competitions they are unbeaten in 13 outings.
It's not just collectively that United are proving their critics wrong. There were some who said Zlatan Ibrahimovic wouldn't be able to adapt to the English game, that he was too old, too slow, and too cosseted after a spell in France with PSG. Ibrahimovic says he has thoroughly enjoyed making his critics eat their words (he used a ruder phrase), having bashed in 18 goals in all competitions. Meanwhile, the statistics show that world record signing Paul Pogba is having a consistent effect on games, while offside scorpion-kick master Henrikh Mkhitaryan is finally showing the form that lit up the Bundesliga game after game.
Mourinho has marshalled his resources effectively this season (his squad is a lot stronger than he would publicly have everyone believe), and as a result his team are still in four competitions. They play Hull City in the League Cup semi-finals on Tuesday, and face a Europa League tie against Saint Etienne in February. Despite such a crowded fixture list, Mourinho is likely to field a strong side. It's worth bearing in mind that his CV features three League Cups, an FA Cup, a Taca de Portugal, a Copa del Rey and a Coppa Italia, so he does take cup competitions seriously.
A familiar face will return to Old Trafford this weekend, as Jaap Stam takes his place on the visitors' bench. The Dutchman was part of the United side that won a glittering treble in 1999, only for his relationship with Sir Alex Ferguson to deteriorate significantly. Stam is keen to put that row behind him, especially as he is now making waves as a manager.
Stam clearly learnt a lot during his three years on the Ajax coaching staff, because he has hit the ground running at the Madejski Stadium. The Royals are playing excellent possession-based football, the fans have been reinvigorated, and the team's fighting qualities were there for all to see in a recent comeback win at Bristol City (Reading came back from 2-0 down to win 3-2 in the last 20 minutes). Reading are currently third in the Championship, six points off the top two.
Stam insists his return to Old Trafford shouldn't be the pre-match focus, and that he is more interested in pitting his wits against Mourinho that reminiscing. Something Stam will have to address in his side's fluctuating away form. Although they have secured 90th-minute winners at Bristol City and Blackburn Rovers recently, they also lost 2-0 at Leeds United and 5-0 at Fulham. It tends to be famine or feast on the road for the Royals - they have won seven of 14 away games, lost six and drawn just one.
Reading are unquestionably a good side playing well, despite not spending a huge amount of money on their squad, and they have won eight of their last 11 games in all competitions. However, they are less consistent on their travels, and they face a Manchester United team in form and capable of fielding a very strong lineup while still resting some players. Reading were knocked out of the League Cup 2-0 at Arsenal, and I suspect they'll lose this with a bit to spare too.
United are trading at 1.251/4 for the win. If you back them -1.5 & -2.0 on the Asian Handicap at 1.855/6, you'll get a half-win if the hosts win by two goals, and a full win if they manage a bigger victory.
Over/Under 2.5 Goals
Eight of Reading's last nine games have featured three goals or more, while four of United's last six matches at Old Trafford have seen an Over 2.5 Goals bet pay out. Because I expect a comfortable home win, I'd lean to towards backing overs, but 1.574/7 is hardly an attractive price.
Manchester United win both halves?
In all but one of their away defeats this season, Reading have lost both halves. Manchester United have won both halves four times at Old Trafford this season, and you can back them at evens to do so again this weekend.
Back Manchester United -1.5 & -2.0 on the Asian Handicap at 1.855/6
This game is available to watch on Betfair Live Video