This was a sparkling display from Rio Ferdinand.
Before the match there had been no public disclosure about whether Roy Hodgson's England call-up would be accepted. But after he created Wayne Rooney's winner and oozed class throughout a victory that virtually kills off Manchester City's title defence – they now trail by 15 points – Sir Alex Ferguson said the defender would definitely be there when England meet up on Monday evening before the World Cup qualifiers with San Marino and Montenegro.
On this evidence England have reclaimed a prize asset. The goal that completed a miserable day for City, after they had folded in a 2-0 loss at Everton, came when Ferdinand stepped up majestically from defence for a mazy run that tore Reading's midfield asunder before he played a clever ball to Rooney. Steadying himself, the striker belted a 25-yard finish that deflected off Alex Pearce.
Ferdinand was also the author of a raking 50-yard ball on the right-to-left diagonal. This propelled Ashley Young at Stuart Taylor's goal and he cut inside to bend an effort that was only narrowly wide.
This was United's fifth consecutive clean sheet in the league. The porous defence of the first half of the campaign that teams found so easy to breach – Reading managed three in the reverse fixture – has become a distant memory.
Ferdinand, who has featured in 21 of United's 29 league games, has been a prime factor in this revival, starting three of those five shutouts. Nemanja Vidic, his central defensive partner, said: "The clean sheets are important. We did not play good football but we got the three points because we defended as a team and as a group. Sometimes you have these games. The team worked hard. ur attackers fought for the team and they fought to keep the clean sheet and that is why we got three points.
"Especially before an international break, you want to win the game and then play for your country without any bad feelings. We did that."
Another of Ferguson's back four, Chris Smalling, said of the defensive improvement: "It is because we have got all our defenders coming back now. Phil Jones is coming back soon as well [from an ankle injury] and it just shows the number of defenders we have got available. It wasn't a great game, it wasn't pretty. It got pretty ugly.
"The manager said that at this time of year there can be a lot of 1-0 wins, which can be ugly and you just need to get the three points. So it is just a case of moving on from this. It wasn't great but we need to come back from internationals ready for some big games.
"We are just happy with the three points because that is what we needed and we got a clean sheet as well. So at the end of the day we can look back on that."
Ferguson was in no mood to accept the championship is United's, despite the yawning chasm over City. Neither was Vidic. "If you look at the 15 points you have to say it is a big gap and we shouldn't let that change," the captain said. "We have the title in our hands but we still have games to play and we have some tough games as well. Nothing is finished yet but we are in a good position."
United lost the title last season to City when eight points ahead with six matches remaining and Vidic believes the Old Trafford crowd are, like the team, wary of complacency. "I think last season is the reason why – sometimes you can feel the fans in the stands get nervous and they think about what happened. But I don't think we should allow that to happen again. We can't allow that to happen again. We are in a good position now and we should enjoy playing football. It is a good time for us."
Reading, second to bottom and with no manager after Brian McDermott's sacking, might have had a penalty when Vidic pushed Adrian Mariappa over. But despite a late rally the result felt inevitable.
Eamonn Dolan, who is in charge temporarily, expects to be consulted about McDermott's successor. "I'm sure I will," he said. "They [the owners] just left me to get on with this difficult task."
For Ferdinand and United, life is currently rather easy.
Man of the match Rio Ferdinand (Manchester United)
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image: © Paolo Camera