- Premier League
Royals throne a poisoned chaliceKevin Keegan March 16, 2013
A heart-breaking Champions League exit at the hands of Real Madrid was followed closely by a disappointing FA Cup draw with Chelsea - but Manchester United could not have hoped for a better fixture to get themselves back on track this Saturday.
Reading are rudderless and at risk of running aground at Old Trafford after the sacking of Brian McDermott on Monday. The Royals' Jason Roberts has since said his manager was "a victim of his own success", and I couldn't have put it better myself.
He's won promotion from the Championship, as champions of the division, and the club were still in with a chance of staying up this season - Brian can feel more than a little hard done by. Reading can't afford the big players, so keeping them in the division was always going to be an enormous task. Now the odds are really stacked against the next man who comes in.
It's the latest in a series of puzzling decisions by Premier League clubs in the last year or so; there are certainly parallels to be drawn with Wolves' sacking of Mike McCarthy and Nigel Adkins' recent departure from Southampton. At least Mauricio Pochettino had some time to settle in at Southampton, but whoever manages Reading next is taking hold of a poisoned chalice. With consecutive away games coming up against Manchester United and Arsenal, they could be cut adrift by the time anyone is even appointed - who would want to take that with seven games to go?
The chairman seemed almost apologetic when he announced Brian's departure, but there's not much solace for a manager to take when they hear someone say: "Thanks for all you've done and the tremendous achievement of getting us up… but we're getting rid of you".
If I were a Reading fan I'd be asking serious questions about why there doesn't seem to be a plan in place - putting the youth team coach in charge and sending him up to Old Trafford Is football cruelty.
Paolo Di Canio's name is the one that's been most widely discussed as Brian's replacement, and I can certainly see the attraction. He's a colourful character who wears his heart on his sleeve, and he'd bring plenty of excitement on and off the pitch. The Reading supporters would be in for a bit of a ride, and we might well see a couple more goalkeepers fetched off early and publicly dressed down.
He would certainly be a gamble, having only previously managed in League One with Swindon, but he did a great job with them under difficult circumstances and has the sort of spark that could potentially galvanise the club. With Swindon just down the M4, I'm sure he's already taken a couple of trips to the Madejski Stadium!
Even if a real presence like Di Canio comes in, however, I feel Reading are doomed. Whether it's him or someone else, they will need to approach the job as if avoiding relegation is just a bonus - it's going to be more about planning for next season and the long-term.
The first priority for Reading and their caretaker Eamonn Dolan is to avoid being the proverbial lambs to the slaughter at Old Trafford on Saturday. It's been suggested in some quarters that the wheels might be falling off at Manchester United after recent results, but that's just wishful thinking from their rivals. The wheels don't come off at Old Trafford - a temporary flat tyre, perhaps, but Sir Alex always manages to pump life back into his team.
There's no doubt he was hurt after the Real Madrid game, and who can blame him after that decision to send Nani off? I'm not a Manchester United fan but I couldn't help but feel sorry for them. The decision was wrong. I love football and don't want to see any unfair or unjust decisions against anybody.
When you get them for your team, you accept them, of course. But when they come against you, it really hurts. I know people argue that United have had a lot of decisions go their way over the years - and they have - but that doesn't make it right. This one went against them, and it was cruel. United have been fined by UEFA for Sir Alex's non-appearance at the post-match press conference, but I can understand that completely as it would have cost him a lot more if he'd gone out and said what he really thought after the game.
The other major storyline from the game was obviously Wayne Rooney's omission. I can remember when Ruud Gullit was Newcastle manager and left Alan Sheaer out of the Tyne-Wear derby - it was a hugely controversial decision and one that led to Gullit being sacked. There are no such worries for Sir Alex, but it certainly felt like a defining moment - it told Rooney and the world that he is not an irreplaceable player for Manchester United.
If as a manager you believe that tactically it was the right way to approach the game, you've got to follow that through, and the way the Real Madrid match developed proved that Sir Alex had his tactics spot on. He must have known the storm that was to come when he left Rooney out of his starting line-up, and he probably could have written some of the pieces and headlines himself, but he still went ahead with the selection.
You're now looking to Wayne Rooney to react - he did to a certain degree against Chelsea with a goal and he will still be hungry to show the manager and the fans what he can do. That's bad news for Reading. I'm sure Sir Alex wants him to stay because he is a great player and he has lot to offer.
Reading will be wary of Rooney's threat, but United have got numerous options even if he doesn't respond. They have been like a juggernaut at times this season and the lead they've established at the top of the Premier League looks pretty insurmountable to me. The title is theirs - and some of the bookies have reportedly paid out, which I can fully understand. Anyone can lose a seven-point lead, not many of us can lose 12.
A goal difference that is 10 better than Manchester City's is basically an extra point, and United could actually afford a slip-up against Reading without feeling too troubled. That would represent a major shock, however, and looking at all the factors around the game it's impossible to make a case for anything other than a convincing three points for the champions-elect.
Kevin Keegan is ESPN's Lead Football Analyst